Spring into Vermont’s Maple Season

Escape into the land of sugar maple trees, sticky festivals, and sweet superiority

Story by Elaina Robinson
Photos contributed by Catherine Stevens of www.vermontmaple.org

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A sugar maker must always make sure to draw off the maple syrup before it gets dense and burns.  After the batch has been drawn-off, the sugar maker has to go through more steps before the syrup is ready to be stored.

It’s sugary and sweet, dark and light. From Grade A to Grade B, it comes in a variety of different tastes. It’s Vermont’s maple syrup, and since spring has arrived, its season is in full bloom.

Known as the maple sugar capital of the world, Vermont is the largest producer of pure maple syrup in the United States, and was the first to establish a maple law, which outlined purity and quality regulations for sugar makers to follow. Its climate, location, soil conditions, and abundance of sugar maple trees all play a part in making Vermont a leader in the maple sugar industry. Today, the pancake and waffle topper goes hand in hand with the state itself.

“While states like New York and Maine also make maple syrup, I think Vermont gets the most publicity and is the best known,” says Betsy Luce, owner of Sugarbush Farms in Woodstock, Vt.  Ruth Goodrich, owner and operator of Goodrich’s Maple Farm in Cabot, Vt., agrees.

“While states like New York and Maine also make maple syrup, I think Vermont gets the most publicity and is the best known.”

“Vermont is a trade name that has been known for quality maple products around the world,” Goodrich says. She explains factors such as Vermont’s mountains, good gravel soils, and abrupt seasonal changes contribute to making their maple season one of the best in the world.  

In Vermont, the maple season typically lasts four to six weeks, starting in early February in southern Vermont and lasting until late April in northern Vermont. In order to produce one gallon of maple syrup, 40 gallons of sap are required, and usually a maple tree is at least 40 years old before it is ready to be tapped. Henry Marckres, Consumer Protection Section Chief at Vermont Agency of Agriculture, says Vermont yielded 890,000 gallons of maple syrup in 2010, slightly down from 2009. New York placed second with 312,000 gallons produced.  

Sugar houses are speckled all over Vermont, and each one is unique. They all serve the same purpose, however, which is to boil sap into maple syrup.

Burr Morse of Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks in Montpelier, Vt. isn’t afraid to say Vermont makes the best syrup. “We hold that image. Yes, we're mildly righteous, and we damned well should be,” Morse says.

Steve Jones, general manager of Maple Grove Farms of Vermont, says only the best maple syrup is made and sold in Vermont. “Vermont syrup stands out because of the pride the sugar makers take in their product,” Jones says.

Vermonters take so much pride in being the top producer of maple syrup that they have enforced strict maple grading laws to protect their most prized product. Laws restrict the addition of any preservatives or other additives, making all Vermont maple products 100 percent natural and essentially organic. To be officially certified as organic, sugar houses are required to go through the process of certification with the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont.

“Vermont sugar makers are very proud of their product. They work very hard to make it and make it good.”

To become certified, a maple producer has to complete an application answering questions about methods of production. After the application is reviewed, the maple farm is inspected, and a thorough audit of the producer’s records is completed.  The Vermont Organic Farmers association then reviews the maple farm to decide if it meets all the standards to be verified organic. This process has to be completed each year.

 “Vermont sugar makers are very proud of their product. They work very hard to make it and make it good,” Goodrich says.  With approximately 3,000 maple producers, representing every county in the state and high output numbers, maple syrup significantly contributes to Vermont’s income and tourism industry.

“The whole maple process is critical to our tourism industry,” Jones says. Maple syrup acts as a cash crop, helping farmers buy seeds and other supplies for spring planting. “The season brings visitors to local sugar houses, which brings money not only to the sugar houses, but to hotels, gas stations, and restaurants,” Luce says. He also notes that Sugarbush Farms sees around 45,000 visitors each year.

Ann Rose, owner of Green Mountain Sugar House in Ludlow, Vt., says one of her favorite parts of maple season is educating the tourists about what goes into making maple syrup.  Morse loves the tourists too.  “95 percent of them [tourists] know nothing about the process, and it feels so good to tell them,” he admits. A big mystery to tourists often revolves around the different grades of syrup.

“Without the maple industry, Vermont would be sad, not as pretty, and suffer a loss of millions of dollars.”

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Vermont maple syrup comes in a variety of different grades, offering everything from a strong to mild flavor.

In Vermont, there are four grades of maple syrup.  They are Vermont Fancy, which is the lightest of the four grades and has the fairest maple flavor; Vermont Grade A Medium Amber, a medium amber color and the most popular choice for table use; Vermont Grade A Dark Amber, a syrup with a heartier maple flavor and darker color; and Vermont Grade B, the darkest and most distinct maple flavor, popular for cooking. “Early season syrup is light and late season syrup is dark.  This is a natural process that is part of the tree's production,” Goodrich says.

Aside from syrup, Vermont also contributes other maple products including maple candy, cream, fudge, sugar, and cake. All products are shipped around the world. Marckres says maple products accounted for $7.5 million in sales last year, while direct retail sales of maple syrup alone accounted for $21.6 million. 

What would happen if the maple syrup industry disappeared from Vermont? Rose says, “Without the maple industry. Vermont would be sad, not as pretty, and suffer a loss of millions of dollars.” Morse says, “It would be like Florida without oranges, Virginia without a beach, Manhattan without the Empire State Building, or New Hampshire without the old man of the mountain—we can't ever let that happen to maple in Vermont.”

What are your favorite maple syrup recipes?

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