BENNINGTON — For Vermont, maple sugar making runs deep in history, and this past weekend 13 sugar producers in Bennington County took part in the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association Open House.
This is an opportunity for the public to step inside a sugar making shack and breathe, taste and learn about the sweet, boiling sap that ends up on cash-out counters at any store in the state.
Sugar makers offered a variety of samples for patrons, including baked maple chex mix, maple milk, maple nut clusters, maple hot dogs, maple cookies and good old fashioned maple syrup.
Due to the weather, most maker's season ended within the last two weeks and they roared up boilers just for the weekend. Some even decided to produce only on Saturday versus both days, according to Keith Armstrong, owner of Armstrong Farm on 614 US Route 7 in Bennington.
Armstrong, tucked in the woods just past the Pownal line, considers himself the luckiest man in the world after claiming over 3,500 trees and a total of 68 acres. He reflected on carrying two heavy buckets at the age of 12 that were full of sap to make syrup down in a hole — the inception of his skill and slowly moving into the family business.
The Armstrong Farm's sugar house was built in 1976. The business opened in February of 1989 and a canning room was added 10 years later. Armstrong's partner, Janice Cipperly, was the mastermind behind all of the maple flavored goodies.
In reference to the sugar and sweetness level of syrup, Cipperly said trees closer to the road with a large crown may produce sap with a higher sugar content.
"We produced 50 percent more syrup this year than a year ago," Armstrong said. "You tap 22 or so, stop, go fix all the leaks in the woods, and continue on."
Armstrong noted that this technique may have helped the increase in production. He sections his land into five zones.
Armstrong operates a large scale boiler that puts out 568 gallons of syrup per hour. He built the shack around the boiler and said he's grown with the production technology quite well.
"My grandfather always told me to listen to everybody, but you make the final decision," he mentioned in reference to competing sugar makers. "It comes down to having real knowledge. We have a reputation for superior products and it goes back to drawing the state lines."
Cipperly shared a story about noticing maple flavored products in grocery stores and looking through the ingredients to reveal anything but real maple syrup. There have been issues with food products claiming to be made with real Vermont maple syrup, but actually aren't. She said it's not right for products to claim such a thing while real sugar makers don't receive the credit.
Wing Farm in Shaftsbury had a much smaller setup, but with a classic red barn view of pasture for miles. Two families and a few family friends formed the business in 2012. It is owned by Scott and Erin McEnaney. In addition to producing maple syrup, the McEnaneys offer their land up to weddings and other special events, as well as selling fresh farm eggs.
As opposed to the Armstrong Farm, which had this year's first sap in January, Wing Farm first tapped on February 21 this year and last year the first tap was on March 15.
"It's all dictated by mother nature," McEnaney said. "You have to draw the sap out of the trees. You can't suck it out."
Wing Farm uses a Leader Evaporator that was built in Vermont. McEnaney said he's committed to Vermont made products.
McEnaney's partner, Michael Gardner, said his least favorite part about sugar making is cleaning up at the end of the season and dealing with the amount of sapped stuck on dishes, with the only magical cleaning solution being a lot of hot water.
"It gives you an opportunity to get out in the winter months in February and March," Gardner said. "We're lucky in Vermont because we have all the innovation and the largest maple research center at the University of Vermont. Vermont is also the largest maple syrup producer in the country. Scott sells to friends and family in at least 48 states."
At the end of the season, Gardner said that by adding vinegar and other ingredients, excess syrup is turned into marinade and sold.
"A season is about six week," he added. "I don't feel like there's any competition. It's a community effort and everyone is really nice. We're a part of the Bennington Maple Sugar Association."
Originally, maple sugar making weekend was only one day and considered Maple Sunday, according to Gardner. He said makers in the northern part of the state could potentially still be producing due to colder climates.
For more information about Vermont maple syrup visit vermontmaple.org.
— Makayla-Courtney McGeeney can be reached at (802)-447-7567, ext. 118.