Craig Line empties sap buckets near his sugarhouse in Calais on Thursday.
Photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
By TOM SLAYTON - Published: April 5, 2009
The Vermont landscape in early spring is a study in browns and grays – winter-battered fields and stark stands of bare trees, with patches of grimy, weathered snow tucked into the shady corners of barns and houses and along the forest edges.
Even out at Maple Corners, in summer one of the prettiest spots in the state, it looks pretty grim now. The fields and hillsides have emerged from winter, but look beaten by it, bare and bruised. The countryside won't assume its lush-green pastoral appearance for several weeks.
Still, this is the season of hope – some hope, anyway – because the days are longer and the snow is almost gone. It is undeniably spring: mud season, sugaring season, time for the first crop of the year, maple syrup.
There's a knot of people standing beside a mud-spattered truck outside Craig Line's sugarhouse, which is just up the road from Kents’ Corner. Two men, two women, all wearing the uniform of backroads Vermont – blue jeans, flannel shirts, baseball caps and, because it's early spring, mud boots.
The sugarhouse is cold and there's ice in the boiling pans. No steam is issuing from the vented cupola on the roof. But Tony has a fire started in the arch and Craig has just arrived with a truckload of fresh sap from trees he taps over in Adamant.
Appearances and frozen sap to the contrary, the evening's boil has begun.
And though the road is still muddy and very soft, it's been a great day – bright, sunny, the first really warm day since last fall. Last night was starry and cold. The combination of cold nights and warm days makes the sap rise and flow from sugar maples into pails and pipes and tubing – nature's spring alchemy. Then the sugarmaker creates some sweet-smelling alchemy of his own; he applies fire to the sap and it boils. And after a time, the result is maple syrup.
Tony and Craig have been chunking four-foot logs of maple and cherry into the "arch" – the firebox directly under the shining stainless steel boiling pans. The ice in the pans has melted. Soon steam is wafting upward, and then, as the fire really gets going, the sap starts to bubble and jump and foam – it's boiling!
It's got to boil down a lot. As every Vermont schoolchild knows, it takes 40 gallons of sap to produce one of syrup.
Last year, Craig tapped more than 900 trees and made 144 gallons of syrup. That's a lot of sap to haul and boil. Sugaring is an incredibly work-intensive process and you can't count your time in the fiscal equation. There's a saying: "You can buy maple syrup for $50 a gallon – or make it yourself for $80 a gallon!"
Fortunately, most sugarmakers love the activity after a long winter. "It's my springtime fitness program," says Craig, who is affable, bearded and (fortunately) energetic. He's a professional photographer – has worked for Associated Press and free-lanced for magazines like Vermont Life and others. But come spring, he's a sugarmaker.
He's originally from Ohio where, believe it or not, they make a lot of maple syrup. He has a sample bottle from his family's sugaring operation there, dated 1957. It's pretty dark, compared to the bright-amber bottles from this year and other years here in Vermont. All the bottles are lined up along the windows. With the sunlight streaming through them, they give a bright, attractive record of every year's sugarmaking. One year has only a half-dozen bottles. "Each bottle is a different boil," Craig explains. "That was a bad year."
Sugarmakers are eternal optimists, and Craig is convinced this year will be a good year. He's already made more than 100 gallons, so he may be right.
Soon the sap is boiling busily – perhaps a bit too busily. It's leaping and foaming dramatically as the fire roars underneath, sparks funnel up through the chimney, and the sugarhouse gets toasty-warm.
"You've got to keep it down a little or it'll boil right over – out of the pan. And that makes an awful mess," Craig says He flicks a few drops of canola oil onto the foaming sap and it subsides a bit. Some sugarmakers will boil a hot dog in the sap to render the few drops of grease to break the surface tension and calm the foam. (And for a snack.) Basic backyard chemistry.
Boiling sap is a dynamic process. You've got to keep the fire stoked and roaring to boil the sap down. But you don't want to boil the sugary liquid over or boil the pan dry. Too much fire and too little sap and Craig could ruin his pan. And so he watches carefully, especially toward the end of the boil, when he's running out of sap. Then he controls the fire by burning sticks and slabs – not the big, hefty chunks that he uses to get the boil going.
How hot does it get? When he's feeding the fire, Craig usually wears longjohns – not, God knows, because he's cold, but to insulate his legs from the fiery-hot jeans that result from getting close to the blaze. Last year, he was wearing chainsaw chaps to shield his legs from the heat. They worked just fine until they caught on fire! He tore them off and tossed them outside into a snowbank. Problem solved.
Craig has two pans – a big "back pan" and a smaller, "front pan" divided into four long channels that the sap can flow through. As the sap in the back pan boils down, he opens a valve that lets it run into the front pan where it will boil down still further and he can control it more precisely.
He measures its viscosity and sugar content with a hydrometer – a thermometer-like gauge that floats in sap in a tall, thin metal cup. The State Agriculture Department sells the gauges, which help them standardize and regulate the sugarmaking process across dozens of private operations, mostly small, mostly independently owned, all across the state. Vermont is known for its maple syrup and has a lot invested in making sure everyone produces a quality product.
When the sap is just below boiling, a red line on the hydrometer has to float right on the surface of the liquid before it can be drawn off, canned, and sold as syrup.
We're getting close to that point. Craig is testing the syrup's viscosity frequently, and the sugarhouse that was chilly an hour ago is warm and moist – filled with sweet-smelling maple vapor. The rest of us are standing around, sipping beers, soaking up the wood heat and maple smells, watching Craig work. He never stops moving.
Kids are playing hide-and-seek around us all this time, scampering over the woodpile, zipping in one side of the sugarhouse, then out the other, then hiding in the woods. An air of pleasant chaos reigns. One lad wants to know "how it works."
"I've been trying to figure that out for 30 years myself!," Craig grins. And we all laugh.
And I always come across good stories – little slices of rural life that I find interesting.
Craig, for example, built his sugarhouse himself, poured the slab and built it from the ground up. He financed most of the construction himself, and got a good deal on the pans from an older sugarmaker up north. But he came up a little short, and so needed to borrow a few thousand dollars to complete the project. Instead of going to the bank, he approached his friends and neighbors up in Calais and East Montpelier, and soon he had several partners.
The sugarhouse was completed and Craig paid back a portion of each loan annually, with some of the money he earned from selling syrup. Each partner also got three gallons of top-grade maple syrup free. As interest on the loan.
"I told one of the partners the syrup was their interest," Craig says. "They said, 'Heck that's a better deal than we could get from the bank!'"
Finally, it's ready. Opening another valve, he draws off a bucket of cloudy, steaming syrup which he tests, then pours into a filtering tank. The syrup drains through a folded length of pure-white Orlon felt, leaving behind a square glob of mud-brown nitre. And then he turns a little tap and out flows new maple syrup – warm, fragrant, amber and sweet.
The sun is slipping behind the bare trees on the hill to the west and long shadows are creeping across the old snow outside as we lift tiny bottles of the fresh, warm syrup to our lips. It's ambrosia – the first taste of spring.
Why do I do this, anyway? Since college days at UVM 40-plus years ago, I have gone in search of sugarhouses. There's something I can't explain, some visceral urge to stand next to a roaring fire and bathe in maple-scented vapor, that hits me every spring. Geese fly north; I head for the nearest sugarhouse.
It may be just an excuse to get out of the house at the end of a long winter. I love deep winter, cold, harsh, snowy and beautiful. But I love spring more. And visiting a sugarhouse is one way to savor the beginnings of spring.
Maybe it's the sudden reappearance of water. Running water is scarce in deep winter. Sure it brings mud to the roads in March and April, but it also brings life back to the land. And sap to the trees.
Maybe it's just an excuse to stand around with other Vermonters (native-born or honorary), sip a beer, and watch someone else work. But it's satisfying and I really wouldn't recognize early spring without it.
There must be a dozen sugarhouses within 10 miles of Montpelier. Some, like Morse Farm and Bragg Farm are bigger commercial operations. Some, these days, are even computerized. I love visiting them all; they all fascinate and entertain me. And at the heart of each one is the elemental mystery of boiling tree sap to create an incredibly delicious product, the essence of the most hopeful season of the year.