March 14, 2015: Syrup Soothes the Savage Beast in “Emerges, Snarling“
Februaury 16, 2014: In just a few days it will again be time to tap the trees on Bobo’s Mountain and sweet, sticky goodness will flow. From the chill stillness of the sugarbush to the roaring heat of the arch, we’ll follow the process as sap becomes syrup, as we did last year. Scroll down for links to posts from 2013 and be sure to check out Bobo’s Mountain Sugar online.
Legend has it that the first maple was tapped by a white man in Vermont in 1764, on the Kathan farm, outside Dummerston. In his book, “Winter in Vermont,” Charles Edward Crane describes seeing that tree, fourteen feet in circumference near the ground and bearing the scars of axes and tapping irons from days gone by. Mr. Crane’s book was published in 1941 and he does not say when he was shown that tree but it was “in a state of senile decay” at the time and it’s a safe bet that tree is now nothing more than a soft spot along an old stone wall.
Living in a world awash in corn syrup and high fructose sweeteners, it is hard to imagine a time when a family had to toil for hours, even days, to produce their annual ration of sweet, but that’s the way it was in Vermont in 1764. Unless, of course, one produced more syrup than needed and had extra to sell. Small enterprises sprang up, producing Vermont Maple Syrup to meet the demand of growing cities and towns as well as visiting tourists, and by the 1930s Vermont maple was found not only on a hungry nation’s griddle cakes but also in candies, chewing tobacco and cigars. Strict product standards are upheld to this day and Vermont Maple Syrup remains one of Vermont’s signature agricultural products.
So proud is Vermont of its maple heritage that boycotts and negative publicity were used a few years ago to convince the state’s lone International House of Pancakes to finally offer real Vermont Maple Syrup (upon request), becoming the only restaurant in that national chain to do so. When confronted by the Governor regarding the distinct lack of maple in its “Maple” breakfasts, McDonald’s began offering (upon request) real Vermont Maple Syrup at its outlets in the state, and a Rhode Island man was recently sentenced to several year’s probation for selling flavored corn syrup swill in jugs labeled Vermont Maple Syrup. Don’t mess with the syrup.
Despite the commercial nature of maple syrup production, the image of Vermont Maple is shrouded in a steamy cloud of nostalgia. Modern syrup labels still depict sap buckets hanging on trees or happy folks wearing plaid, emptying those buckets into a tank on a horse-drawn sledge. The disconnect between image and reality of our foodstuffs is just one reason I decided to spend some late winter time helping out at Bobo’s Mountain Sugar this year and share my take on it here.
Any conversation about maple sugaring inevitably comes around to the old past vs. present thing, and to those who still tap with bit & brace, hang buckets and boil over open fires, I say more power to you. The intimacy of small batch sugaring is delightful and that syrup is a special delicacy. I also feel strongly that a lot of people in this world could benefit from standing around in the mud and melting snow for 13 hours while a kettle of sap cooks down. Even I would enjoy tapping a few trees and having friends over to help with the boil, but it’s a commercial operation I’ve become involved with and things are done differently. From that standpoint modernization makes sense, but my time on Bobo’s Mountain has reassured me that, no matter how much some things change, there are other, deeply rooted, aspects of sugaring that no amount of technology can touch.
When I first saw the trees in a sugar bush hooked up to hoses, way back in the 20th Century, I was appalled. There was nothing romantic about it at all, but I guessed I could see the efficiency of having all that sap flow downhill through tubes instead of climbing up to get it. When I heard some of those hoses were hooked up to vacuum pumps I almost had a fit, thinking of some lunatic in a sugar house turning dials and checking gauges as he sucked his trees dry. There is no denying the efficiency of sap collection using hoses and tubes and, now that I’ve been introduced to the system, the vacuum pumps no longer freak me out.
A sugar maker can only collect what a tree gives. He can not make it give more and it is in his best interests to not harm that tree by trying. The vacuum pump does not suck the sap from the trees; it merely aids in the collection of that sap, especially on slow days when a small amount per tree might be left to sit in a bucket or left in the lines, where bacteria could form. It would take at least all day to gather 2,000 dribbles tree by tree but, drawn to the tank by a light negative pressure, they do not go to waste.
In addition, the hole for a tap, no matter the method used to make it, is an injury to a tree and that tree will respond to it. Hormones and other chemicals will swarm, to promote healing and isolate the site, but those same chemicals can travel from one tree to another, right down the line, setting off an arboreal panic and causing entire sections of sugar bush to shut down. Negative pressure prevents the passage of fluid between trees, keeping disease and other problems at bay.
Another component of commercial sugar making I’ve come to understand is reverse osmosis, a process by which a portion of the water is removed from the sap prior to boiling. When I first saw it on a news story about sugaring, the emphasis was on how much oil was saved by the reduced boil times it allowed. I believe I changed the channel because I was so offended by oil-fired syrup. Bobo’s Mountain Sugar boils using wood and the sap they boil has been through a reverse osmosis filter, which is saving them labor, time and fuel as they make their way into full-scale production of Vermont Maple Syrup.
Maple sap is anywhere from 97% – 99% water. It is the cleanest water you’ve ever tasted, with just a slight hint of the intense sweetness to come. By removing 75% of the water through reverse osmosis, 2000 gallons of sap with a 1.25% sugar content become 500 gallons of sap with a 5% sugar content, still a far cry from syrup, but it will take a lot less time to boil down. The reverse osmosis filter on Bobo’s Mountain can process 600 gallons of sap per hour but you will never see one of these machines on a syrup label, so we’ll just close the doors to the High-Tech Room and move on to the main attraction.
My posts on the season so far: