A few weeks ago while visiting my parents in upstate New York, James, myself and my parents paid a visit to a local maple syrup shack, called Dunn’s Leak-ee Bucket Sugar Shack. Founded in 2004, the seasonal, family-owned and operated business is located in Bennington, Vermont (a town over from my hometown in NY). There are three generations helping out with the business, including a father-and-son-team with the grandchildren helping out with the boiling and canning process as well.
According to their Facebook page, “Jason Dunn started his maple syrup hobby in his backyard with some turkey frying pots and plastic buckets and jugs on trees. As his sugar bush grew and his desire to add more taps, he created an evaporator made out of a 50 gallon drum with an old oil barrel for his arch. Finally, in late 2006 he purchased a real evaporator with his father Ted and together they built their new sugar shack. They have successfully completed two seasons with 601 taps and with the addition of some new equipment it is sure to be a great season.”
The Sugarshack was having an open house, inviting members of the community to come see how the business operates, how maple syrup is made and to try samples of the most recent batch.
So just how is maple syrup made, exactly? While I was paying attention during the tour, it was a bit complicated with all the machinery. But here’s what I remember, supplemented by some online research. Sugarmakers begin to tap the trees in mid-to-late February, as winter starts to exit. After the taphole is drilled, a spout with either a bucket and hook or tubing attached is placed in the hole and gently tapped in place. March and April are sugaring season– the warmer temperatures of spring coax sugar maple trees to turn stored starch back into sugar. Sap is made as the tree mixes ground water with the sugar. Did you know it takes on average 40 gallons of sap to make each gallon of maple syrup? A typical sugaring season lasts 4 to 6 weeks, which is why I mentioned the phrase “seasonal business” earlier in the post.
The freezing and thawing temperatures will build up pressure within the trees, which causes the sap to flow from the tapholes. The sap is drawn quickly back to storage tanks at the sugarshack using a vacuum pump. From the storage tanks, the sap is often put through a reverse osmosis machine, which takes a percentage of the water from the sap before boiling. The evaporation process sends clouds of steam billowing from the steam stacks. An evaporator is where the boiling takes place. Stainless steel pans sit atop an arch, or firebox, where wood creates an intense fire. There was a timer set at the shack we were in, which made sure that new wood was put in the fire every 10 minutes. As the water in the sap evaporates, the sap thickens and as the sugar caramelizes it looks like hundreds of golden bubbles in the front pan. The sugarmaker tests the syrup’s progress by looking for it to sheet off the edge of a metal scoop meaning it’s almost ready. When the thermometer in the pan reaches 219 degrees the syrup is ready to draw off.
In addition to maple syrup, Vermont is also well-known for their cheese. Although I’m not a cheese eater (yes, it’s crazy, I know), James test-tasted a few of each kind and let me know just how good they were. They had a spread of cured meats as well- maple venison sausage was a standout. We took “shots” of the syrup, which was delicious. Vermont maple syrup tastes entirely different than the store-bought kind. It’s thinner, lighter, sweeter and less artificial–a taste that’s hard to describe unless you try it for yourself!
For more information–or to order some real Vermont maple syrup of your own– shoot an e-mail to DunnsSugarShack@comcast.net.