You know spring is near or here when maple sugaring season swings into full gear. Of course New England does not have a monopoly on maple syrup production, but one New England state, Vermont, is pretty much synonymous with maple syrup. The state of Vermont is the largest producer of maple syrup in the United States.
One of the joys of late winter and early spring is visiting one (or more) of the regions many sugarhouses where maple syrup is made. You can see the process of making syrup in action and, better yet, get the opportunity to taste the products of that process.
Where Does Maple Syrup Come From?
Maple syrup is made from the sap of maple trees. More specifically, it is typically made from the sap of the sugar maple but it may also be made from the sap of the black, red, silver, and Manitoba (box elder) maples. The sugar maple, however, provides the sweetest sap.
Maple Sugaring Season
Maple sugaring season typically lasts about six weeks. It starts when Mother Nature provides a cycle of alternating below freezing weather and above freezing weather (cold nights and warmer days). Depending on location, this can start as early as mid- to late-February and extend as late as mid-April.
How Maple Sap is Collected
Maple sap is collected by drilling a hole in a maple tree and inserting a plastic or metal tap into the hole. The sap is either collected in a bucket hanging from the tap or by using a network of plastic tubing. The number of taps per tree is dependent upon the size of the tree. Sugar producers may have hundreds or even thousands of taps.
How Maple Syrup is Made
The process of turning maple sap into maple syrup is a relatively simple one. The sap is taken to a sugarhouse where is is placed in an evaporator where the sap is boiled to remove its water content. When the finished syrup is drawn off of the evaporator it is tested for sugar content, filtered, taste tested and color graded.
A sugar house is relatively easy to spot by the large amounts of steam coming out of its vents and the faint smell of sweetness in the air.
Grades of Maple Syrup
The US designates four grades of maple syrup:
Grade A Light Amber – This is called “Vermont Fancy” in Vermont. As its name would imply, this syrup has a light amber color and a light maple flavor. This is typically made from early season sap.
Grade A Medium Amber – This syrup is both a little darker than light amber, with a medium amber color, and a somewhat stronger maple flavor. This is typically made from mid-season sap.
Grade A Dark Amber – This syrup is darker and has a strong maple flavor. It is typically made from late season sap. In Maine, they also make a Grade A Extra Dark Amber.
Grade B – This is a late season dark syrup with very strong maple flavor. Typically used for cooking, it can still be used as a table syrup.
Which of these tastes the best is a matter of personal taste.
Where to Find Sugarhouses
The maple sugar associations of the various states publish lists of sugarhouses in that states. See below to find a sugarhouse near you:
- Connecticut: CT Sugarhouses Open to the Public (PDF) from the Maple Syrup Producers Association of Connecticut
- Maine: Maple Producers from the Maine Maple Producers Association
- Massachusetts: Directory of Mass Sugarhouses from the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association.
- New Hampshire: NH Maple Producers from the New Hampshire Maple Producers Association.
- Rhode Island: Directory of Rhode Island Honey Maple Syrup Producers (PDF) from the RI Department of Environmental Management Division of Agriculture
- Vermont: Vermont Maple Sugarhouses from the Vermont Maple Foundation and Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association.
New England Maple Festivals
In a region where maple syrup and maple products are so important, it is only fitting to celebrate with a festival. Following are the major maple festivals throughout New England:
- Hebron Maple Festival, Hebron, CT
- Maine Maple Sunday, Maine (statewide)
- Maple Days, Old Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge, MA
- Maple Month, Massachusetts (statewide)
- New Hampshire Maple Weekend, New Hampshire (statewide)
- Vermont Maple Festival, St. Albans, VT
- Vermont Maple Open House Weekend, Vermont (statewide)
- World Maple Festival, St. Johnsbury, VT