Beyond Maple Syrup
Vermont entrepreneurs are using maple sap in new ways—and waiting to see how the climate changes
Written onDecember 01 , 2007
On Sunday mornings during my childhood in Burlington, my father would make heaping stacks of pancakes on the wood stove. My sister and I eagerly awaited the moment when we would pour dark amber maple syrup on our plates to make our doughy boats float in a pool of sweetness. As a child, I took for granted that maple syrup, that quintessential Vermont ingredient, was an important part of the culture in my state. But today, a shift in ecological conditions thought to be triggered by global warming is pressuring ecosystems to move northward. If the southerly range of sugar maples migrates northward into Canada, a vital part of Vermont’s culture and economy will relocate with these valuable trees.
Although Vermont led all states in maple syrup production in 2006 with 460,000 gallons–more than 32 percent of the maple syrup produced in the United States–the threat of a Vermont without maple syrup is real. Tim Perkins at the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Station in Underhill has found that the sugaring season–formerly 30 days in length–has been shifting earlier in the spring by a week (on average) over the past 40 years, thereby reducing the standard season by 6 to 10%. And many sugar producers have already experienced the impact of changing weather on sap production.
But the threat to maples hasn’t stopped Vermont entrepreneurs from using maple sap in innovative ways. Here are three local businesses that have taken the maple syrup once reserved for Sunday morning pancakes and used it in variations never before imagined.
On Route 100, just north of Westfield village in the Northeast Kingdom, a picturesque 1892 house and barn rise up from the landscape. Jacque and Pauline Couture, the owners of Couture’s Maple Shop and Bed & Breakfast, purchased their farm as a young married couple in 1970. While raising six children, they started a maple business and maintained a strong dairy operation that earned them Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year in 2004. At first they simply engaged in milk production and maple syrup sales, but demands for original maple products inspired them to branch out. When customers would ask, “Do you make maple candy?” they’d quickly respond, “No, we don’t…but we will!” Now their products go far beyond maple cream and candies to maple dressing, maple-coated almonds and peanuts, maple cotton candy, maple fire hot sauce, and even maple onion chive dip. In addition, Jacques and Pauline are using the Internet to spread Vermont’s sweet bounty throughout the world. Thanksgiving to Christmas is the rush season, when they mail up to 100 packages a day.
Jacques, 57, starts his day at 5 a.m. By 5:10 he is out milking in the barn, where he returns at sundown. He maintains the farm and the sugar bush while Pauline, also 57, creates and tests new recipes, hosts open houses, and operates the B&B. As winter begins to wane, the Coutures put 6,200 taps into the rough, grooved bark of their sugar maple trees, boil sap in the sugar house, and check on their 25 to 30 miles of plastic tubing to make sure it hasn’t been disturbed by fallen limbs or a moose. They aim to finish tapping their trees before the first of March–right around Town Meeting Day.
Early Vermonters learned to sugar by watching native Abenaki people gash maple trees and insert hollow elderberry or sumac stems that allowed sap to spill into birch bark pails. Later, when the state of Vermont opposed slavery during the Civil War and Yankees boycotted southern sugar cane, Vermonters turned to making their own source of sweetness by reducing syrup to large sugar cakes and blocks. Throughout the year, they whittled their blocks down to add sweetness to recipes. As Jacques points out, “Most farms have forests and most forests in this part of the world have maple trees, so very seldom was there a farm that did not produce maple syrup.” He also notes that the good ol’ days weren’t necessarily good. “Some people think that sugar makers work day and night,” he says, and that used to be the case. “But in reality we sleep more than we used to because we have equipment that handles our sap faster.” With new technology such as the reverse osmosis machine and plastic tubing, the Coutures can now produce more sap per tap and can access their trees with ease.
Jacques’ vision for the future is to continue to “take an inventory of all the resources we have on this farm and then see how we can use these resources to provide ourselves a living and, at the same time, when we leave this farm, [make sure] that we leave it in better condition than when we took it.” For many Couture guests and customers, the farm provides their first contact with agriculture, and because Jacques believes that he has “only one chance at a first impression,” the couple prides themselves on treating their land and animals well. “Our goal is to do things that are sustainable, that are good for the soil, the water, the trees, the cattle, and to do it in an environmentally sound and aesthetic way,” Jacques says. He hopes that when people drive by his farm, “they think something nice of agriculture.”
Farther south, in a slightly milder climate, the Saxtons River Distillery in Cambridgeport sits nestled in a hillside by the banks of Weaver Brook. Christian Stromberg, the 36-year-old owner of the distillery, used his background in engineering to construct a beautiful wine-red barn for his operation, and used all salvaged materials¾right down to the single-pane windows. He assembled the ceiling from cratewood and milled all of the locally harvested lumber himself. Adjacent to the barn sits a mobile chicken pen with Golden Comet chickens happily pecking the grass, and on the edge of the L-shaped backyard, bee boxes overlook the brook, which was formerly Saxtons River. The remnants of an old mill hint at the land’s past.
On this former flood plain, Stromberg has worked for the past three years to fashion his unique maple liqueur. Descended from Lithuanian, Polish, and Swedish ancestors who were steeped in liqueur refining, Stromberg was inspired to use a local resource to produce his own variation of the family tradition. After experimenting with various liqueur flavorings, he stumbled upon a fit: Grade A maple syrup. Unlike Grade B, Grade A makes the product sweeter without yielding a bitter taste. He now makes his maple-flavored Sapling Liqueur from Grade A Vermont maple syrup and spirit distilled from American grain, and he ages it in oak barrels to produce a “rich, smooth flavor.” For Stromberg, every day involves mixing, bottling, labeling, corking, sealing, or marketing. His current aims are to get suppliers lined up, acquire consistency, and get his product on more shelves. Currently, Sapling Liqueur can be found in Vermont Liquor Outlets and other stores.
Although Stromberg does not make his own maple syrup, he keeps each step of production as local as possible by purchasing local syrup. Through word of mouth, he found Dan Crocker and his company, Sidelands Sugarbush, in Putney. Crocker has developed a thriving business by practicing low-impact tapping techniques, such as using only one tap per tree, using shallow taps, doing corrective pruning, and thinning around production trees to provide room to grow. These innovative practices minimize the impacts of sugaring while maximizing tree health. Crocker’s practices demonstrate that responsible land stewardship can directly sustain resources while providing viable products.
To further keep his production local, Stromberg commissioned his logo from Thrasher Design in Brattleboro and has his labels printed in Bellows Falls. He also carves soapstone coasters to rest beneath the glasses of his tawny beverage. Soapstone, which retains heat well, used to be placed over a fire or stove and used by locals to warm their beds on cold winter nights. Stromberg’s harvesting of soapstone from his own backyard is another example of his use of local resources.
He hopes to one day distill gin from local juniper, spices, and herbs from his garden, and to expand to un-sugared liqueurs. But he wonders about the future of his key ingredient. “Guys I know [who are sugaring] are having a rough time with it and are ready to give it up.”
Anyone who has visited a sugarhouse knows how hot and steamy it can get inside. Like many sugarers, brothers Bob and Rich Münch drink cold and refreshing sap to quench their thirst during the long evaporating process. Their Maple Seltzer was inspired while they were sugaring on their land in Poultney and Bob came up with the idea of bottling this sap in an innovative Vermont product. Rich added carbonation to the idea and, in 1993, acquired a U.S patent on the seltzer. Since then, the brothers, both 50 and living in separate houses on the same land, have extended the product line of their Vermont Sweetwater Bottling Company by using maple syrup and other flavors to create six all-natural sodas.
Maple Seltzer can only be produced in springtime when its key ingredient, sap, starts flowing. That makes spring a busy time of year for the Münches, with all the pasteurizing, carbonating, and bottling, which they do in a small plant on their property. As a result, the brothers have little time to work on the sales and marketing aspect of their business, but Rich hopes that someday his sons will help him and Bob expand the business. For Rich, the best part of his job is knowing that they’re making “a quality handmade product.”
Rich says he’s heard talk of global warming, and he imagines that it would be devastating to sugarmaking in Vermont. In the southern part of the state, he notes, it is only marginally cold enough to make the syrup, so Rich is not sure whether they could produce syrup in February if the weather gets any warmer. In the last decade, Rich has not personally noticed much of a difference in syrup production, but he says that it really depends on the weather. “When it’s warmer in the southern part of the state, the cooler, northern part of the state produces more.”
Every third tree in Vermont is a maple, and the annual economic impact of the maple industry here is about $200 million, so many Vermonters are invested in tending this precious resource. Maple lovers throughout the state can support local maple producers by helping to create sustainable management plans that ensure the preservation of this crucial part of Vermont’s heritage. As a child, I never knew that the sweet amber liquid floating around my pancakes was so important to my local environs. Today, it is vital to local producers such as the Coutures, Christian Stromberg, and the Münches, who are working hard to preserve and sweeten Vermont’s culture.
Photos by Bonnie Hudspeth