We certainly had a good time on Saturday tasting all the various maple products at the Vermont Maple Festival. However, we felt we were missing part of the experience. No trip to Vermont would be complete without a visit to an authentic maple sugarhouse. As luck would have it, we learned we were camped just around the corner from one of the best - Palmer's Sugarhouse!
When we called to get more information, we were disappointed to learn that the sugaring season just ended. However, the owner, Michelle Palmer, agreed to meet us and open up the sugarhouse just for us. On Monday, April 30, 2018, we drove around the corner for our tour of the sugarhouse.
Although not a huge operation, Palmer's Sugarhouse is a family run enterprise with all the traditional Vermont maple sugarhouse trappings. During open house weekends, the public is invited in for sugar on snow, maple cotton candy, donuts, maple cream and even crepes.
We had to ask, "What is 'sugar on snow'?" Michelle explained that you bring maple syrup to a boil and pour it over snow (or shaved ice if no snow is available). The warm syrup crystallizes when reacting with the cold ice. What starts as a stretchy taffy-like texture gradually becomes rock hard. The traditional sugar on snow is served with sour pickles to cut the sweetness and a plain doughnut. Sorry we missed it. We'll have to put this on the list for next time.
To get a sense of what this place is like in full swing, check out this YouTube Video from the local TV Station. Destination Recreation Palmer Sugarhouse
The traditional method of tapping the trees and hanging a bucket from the tap has been replaced by more modern collection methods. The old buckets are now just used for decoration.
It takes about 30 to 40 gallons of maple sap to produce a gallon of syrup. Boiled sap becomes finished syrup when the sugar concentration reaches 66%. Syrup makers test for this in several ways. A candy thermometer will tell you when the sap reaches seven degrees above the boiling point of water. A hydrometer will float in sap at varied depths depending upon how dense the fluid is. A couple of older methods include the "apron test" -- a scoop is dipped into the boiling sap and held upright to drain. Formation of a large apron instead of drips indicates the correct density. Or, you could try the blob test. Take a spoonful of boiling sap and dip into a bowl of cold water. If the sap disperses or floats, continue boiling. If it forms a single blob and sinks to the bottom, you have maple syrup!
Once the sap has been boiled down into syrup, the syrup is then collected and taken over to a filtering unit. We never realized that maple syrup needed to be filtered. But as the water boils off, it can leave minerals behind that can form niter or sugar sand. Pouring hot syrup through proper sugarmaking filters before bottling will usually keep sugar sand out of the syrup.
Owners David and Michelle Palmer are carrying on a tradition started by David’s grandmother, Marjorie Palmer, back in the 1940’s when she decided to tap trees and make her own sugar, due to a cane sugar shortage at the time. David's dad, David Palmer senior, carried on that tradition, passing it on to his son, who now enlists most of his family to carry on the legacy.
A discussion of maple sugaring wouldn't be complete without explaining the grading system. Though all grades of pure maple syrup are identical in density and maple sugar content (66.9%), the color of the syrup can and does range from pale golden to dark brown. In fact, maple syrup is graded solely by its color. This difference in color has mostly to do with when the syrup is made. As the spring warms up, the sap coming from the trees becomes darker in color, producing a darker syrup. Corresponding to color, the darker the syrup is, the stronger its flavor.
Here are the old and new grade designations:
OLD: “Fancy” or “Vermont Fancy” - NEW: Grade A | Golden Color and Delicate Taste. This is the lightest of the new maple syrup grades and highly recommended for drizzling over waffles, pancakes, or ice cream.
OLD: Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber - NEW: “Grade A | Amber Color and Rich Flavor.” This grade of maple syrup is a little more flavorful and works well when cooking and baking.
OLD: Grade A Dark Amber, Grade B - NEW: “Grade A | Dark Color and Robust Flavor. ”This grade of maple syrup is even stronger in flavor, and is best used for recipes that require a heavy maple flavor.
OLD: Grade C- NEW: “Grade A | Very Dark Color and Strong Flavor.” This grade of maple syrup is very strong, and probably best used as a substitute for molasses and for making maple flavored candies.
We have long been fans of the old Grade B. We love our maple syrup dark and robust. We were excited to learn that it was possible to get a very dark syrup. However, when we called around to different retailers, we were told that, under Vermont laws, very dark syrup is not sold by retail establishments, but is only available at local sugarhouses. And now you know the real reason we scheduled a tour of Palmer's Sugarhouse. They just made a batch of Very Dark Strong maple syrup and were happy to sell us some!
After settling up for our purchases, we were invited to take a self-guided tour into the "sugarbush." A sugarbush is a group of Sugar Maple trees growing in the same area and used to produce maple syrup or maple sugar. This might mean 2000 trees used for commercial syrup production, or might refer to the 5 trees in someone's backyard.
Some of the locals came out to greet us on our way up the hill.
We followed the old woods road up into the hills behind the sugarhouse.
The taps themselves are just tiny holes drilled into the trees. Clear plastic tubes are "tapped" into the tree and bright blue hoses weave their way from tree to tree.
The blue hoses all connect to one large, central black plastic pipe which runs all the way down the hill to the sugarhouse. A pump gently draws the sap down to a holding tank before it is then transferred into the boiler. Most trees only have one tap, but larger trees can take two or three taps.
Back in the day when Marjorie Palmer was tapping and collecting the maple sap, this was her sugarhouse.
When, in 1972, the Palmers moved their sugarhouse operation from the old building on the top of the hill down to the new barn so there would be easier access from the road, most of the equipment was moved down as well, but there were still some old buckets and taps laying around.
As we walked back down the hill, we got a better look at the "new" sugarhouse:
This Thursday, we are heading up into Canada and over to the Canadian Maritimes. It may be a while before we are back in Vermont, so we want to make sure we have enough maple syrup to hold us over until our next visit!