With snow on their roots and sun warming their branches, early spring’s freezing and thawing gets the sap flowing in Vermont’s maple trees. This is sugaring time, when farmers all over the state create extensive networks of vacuum-boosted PVC tubes to tap these trees for their sap. It’s the raw—and only—ingredient in pure maple syrup.
Not all syrup is created equal, and in Vermont, the maples produce an unusually fine product, a fact the residents gleefully promote and the state willfully protects with its strict Maple Syrup Law. Vermont is the nation’s largest producer of maple syrup: last year’s production of 890,000 gallons was nearly half of the nation’s 1.96 million gallons.
The state takes its signature product very seriously, and will defend it to the death. It recently took on—and beat—behemoth McDonalds in a maple syrup showdown for using the word “maple” in an oatmeal product that contain none. And when IHOP opened its first Vermont store, it knew better than to insult its hosts: the new outlet became the only one in its 1400+ restaurant chain to serve real Vermont maple syrup.
Vermont law regulates standards for syrup quality, production methods, grading, and labeling. The state considers maple syrup to be “pure” when enough water is evaporated from the sap to reach a 67% sugar concentration.
In the world of deceptive food labeling, Vermont’s mandate is simple: if you’re going to call a product “maple syrup” it has to, in fact, be that. The product must be made of 100% pure maple, without any additives or preservatives. If you’ve only ever eaten syrup peddled by matronly American women (I’m looking at you Mrs. Butterworth and Aunt Jemima), you haven’t actually eaten maple syrup. Neither of these “pancake syrup” products contain any actual real maple syrup, while Log Cabin contains a mere 2%.
Real maple syrup is much more expensive than “pancake syrup” because it’s labor-intensive to make, and annual supply is limited. Yields vary depending upon weather conditions, and the sugaring season is short. On average, it takes 40 gallons of sap to produce just one gallon of maple syrup. This requires sap from four trees, but sugarmakers can only tap maples that are more than 40 years old. Additionally, taps must be put in and removed from the tree (to allow for healing) by hand.
Maple syrups have different flavor profiles, from light and bright to rich and smokey. But does it express terroir? Many people think so. Syrup production is affected by weather, climate, time of year in which the sap is collected, and how it’s processed, but syrup is graded only according to color and viscosity.
Some would say that where the trees are rooted, and the soils and minerals from which they draw create unique flavor profiles in the final syrup product. Vermont’s made it easy to test: every bottle of maple syrup sold must also include the name and address of the producer.
Maybe it’s the soil, or maybe it’s the climate, but whatever it is, we’re drinking it up. We love us some Vermont maple syrup on our pancakes. In our baked goods. With savory items like sausages and fried chicken. Hell, we’ve even been know to sip it solo, sans accoutrements.
We visited the Burgess Sugarhouse in Underhill, Vermont, a 30-year old family run operation. Their sugarbush contains thousands of maples, and their evaporator is fueled soley from wood harvested sustainably from their own forest.
Watch the video to see how maple syrup is made, from sap to syrup.