If you are a Middlebury local, you probably know about Werner Tree Farm. It is a hugely popular spot to buy beautiful Christmas trees from a small family-owned business. It’s where we buy the tree for the Swift House parlor in December, as well as many wreaths to hang on our doors. However, their farm does much more than just provide holiday decorations. They also make delicious, authentic Vermont maple syrup.
Vermont is the biggest producer of maple syrup in the United States and the second biggest producer in the world (Quebec comes in first). Since we are such a small rural state, there are lots of small producers of syrup. Werner is often open for visitation, so you can see up close how they make their syrup, step by step. The Werner family is super friendly and willing to share their immense knowledge of syrup. Their family has been in the syrup business since the 1800s, so they really know their stuff.
March is when the “sugaring” happens, which is when they turn sap from the trees into yummy maple syrup. Visiting at this time is really a treat, especially when you enter the sugarhouse to be greeted by the luxuriously sweet smell of boiling syrup! Here are 5 important steps to making maple syrup that I learned from visiting Werner Tree Farm.
1. Collecting the Sap
The farm has about 15 acres of maple forest, also known as a “sugarbush.” Within the forest, 800 trees have been tapped for syrup. To tap a tree, you first drill a hole in it, then put a tap in that hole which allows sap to flow out of the tree. The sap can either be collected with buckets by the individual tree, or by using a tube system.
If you’ve hiked around Vermont, you’ve probably run across long tubes connecting maple trees and wondered what they are for. These tubes increase the efficiency of the sap-collection process. Rather than individually picking up buckets from each tree, they transport sap from many trees into one place. At Werner, 200 of their trees are individually tapped, meaning that they have to go to each tree and collect the bucket of sap. The remaining 600 trees use a tube system.
After being collected from the buckets, the sap goes into a large container in the back of a pickup truck, where it is then ready to move along to its next stage.
2. Transporting Sap to the Sugarhouse
Lots of tubes are involved in the syrup-making process! One of the members of the Werner family drives the truck back from the sugarbush to the sugarhouse. The big barrel then connects into the building using more tubes. The sap makes its way into the sugarhouse where the tubes lead into the evaporator.
3. Boiling the Sap
The sap travels via tubes from the truck into the sugarhouse. It then enters the place where the magic happens: the evaporator. The base of the evaporator is called the arch. At Werner Tree Farm, they use a wood-fired arch made in Rutland, VT in the 1950s. The arch has a back pan and a front pan. The sap enters the back pan, then drips into the front pan, which is open on the top. It was very cool to see the sap boil faster and faster as it got closer to becoming syrup.
Since the arch is wood-fired, they have to routinely stoke the fire and add new logs. It was quite warm in the sugarhouse, and the boiling sap made it feel like a maple-scented sauna.
4. Becoming Maple Syrup
In order to legally be classified as maple syrup, the sap must reach a temperature that is 7 degrees above the boiling point of water. It shouldn’t go far above that though, otherwise it could burn. You can see below that they have a thermometer that starts at zero, with zero being the boiling point of water. Once the thermometer reaches seven, one of the Werners opens up the tap so the bucket can start filling.
Another way to tell if the sap is almost syrup is to let some drip off the big metal spoon. At first, it will just drip off in streams or drops. When it becomes syrup, it will form into a sheet as it falls off the spoon, which you can see in the photo below.
Now that the sap has turned into syrup, it has to be filtered. This gets rid of any unwanted minerals that may be left in the sap. The syrup is now ready to be graded and bottled!
5. Determining the Grade
Once the syrup is boiled and filtered, it receives a grade. The grade of syrup is primarily determined by its color. There are four potential grades: Golden, Amber, Dark, or Very Dark. A grading kit helps to compare the colors of different syrup batches to each other.
A taste comparison will show you how different the different grades are. Amanda and Cheryl Werner both prefer the golden delicate syrups, which tend to have a light, buttery taste, perfect for pouring over pancakes or ice cream. The dark syrups are more forceful in flavor, and can taste sort of like molasses when they get very dark. These are better suited for cooking in recipes where the maple flavor has to compete with other flavors. Interestingly, all syrup producers use the same international grading system so that consumers know what they’re getting when they purchase a certain grade of syrup.
Bonus: Visit the Animals
Some pretty adorable animals live at Werner Tree Farm. The most exciting were the cute little lambs. They also have two horses named Twister and Dancer, as well as several chickens and a sweet dog named Annie.
These are the simplified main steps to making maple syrup at Werner Tree Farm. The beauty of visiting such a small operation is that you can see the love and care that goes into their syrup. Visit Vermont during March and go check out a small maple business such as Werner. It doesn’t get more authentically Vermont than this!