Maple Syrup, the Vermont Way

Drizzling your flapjacks with bona fide maple syrup tapped from northern hardwood forests provides a mouthwatering breakfast—and a boon to birds. 

They call it “Maple Moon”—that magical time each year when sap oozes from maple trees in the Northeast through eastern Canada and as far west as Minnesota. Nowhere in this country does that sweet stream spilling over our pancakes and filling the nooks and crannies of our waffles flow more steadily and surely than Vermont, which produced 1.4 million gallons of syrup last year—almost half the nation’s supply.

Against the snowy backdrop of a postcard-perfect countryside, smoke swirls from chimneys atop tiny wooden shacks. Inside, Vermonters are stoking wood fires to boil maple sap, transforming it to an amber liquid so sublime it borders on intoxicating.

In these parts, “sugar making” is more than a hobby or an earnest way to build a living; it’s an art and it’s a way to connect people to a place. And that is precisely the point of the “Sugar on Snow” festival for outdoorsy gastronomes unfolding on the hill of Green Mountain Audubon Center’s 255-acre property in Huntington. The message: If you choose real maple syrup (not corn syrup) made from sap collected in healthy northern hardwood forests like this one, you’re not only indulging in a culinary tradition, you’re protecting the birds that live and breed in these trees. 

“Sugar making is a land use that keeps the forest intact, as opposed to putting a house or a parking lot on it,” says Jim Shallow, Audubon Vermont’s conservation and policy director. “These forests play multiple roles—for sugar making and for wildlife—and it’s all part of what makes Vermont Vermont.”

I soon meet one of the forest’s emissaries: Kristen Sharpless, an Audubon Vermont conservation biologist, who is teaching a crowd of rosy-cheeked kids in parkas and snow boots how to identify a sugar maple. Sharpless, 34 years old and exuberant, wears a red tasseled hat and a nubby wool sweater over a flannel shirt. Strung between two trees above her are 40 empty plastic gallon milk jugs to represent how much sap it takes to make just one gallon of syrup.

She takes a tape measure out of her pocket and helps the children wrap it around one maple’s sturdy trunk. “Fifty-three inches,” she declares. “Any tree that is at least 31 inches [in circumference] is okay to tap.”

The day’s weather conditions have created the perfect environment for sap to flow. Last night, as the thermometer sunk below freezing, the tree drew sap from its roots. When the mercury climbed to just above 40 degrees this afternoon, pressure grew in the tree’s trunk and branches. Tapping a hole into the tree is like “letting the air out of a balloon,” says Sharpless.

The kids feel around the tree’s gnarly, lichen-covered trunk, inspecting each crack to find any scars from where it might have been tapped before. “Sometimes holes are made by something other than humans,” Sharpless says, pointing to a notch in the wood. “This one was made by a yellow-bellied sapsucker.” 

Sapsuckers are among the dozens of bird species that forage and nest in the Atlantic northern forest of Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, and New York, then spend their winters in the tropics. For some of these species, as much as 90 percent of their global populations breed in the northern forest. That’s why preserving their habitat through sustainable land uses like sugar making and wildlife-friendly forestry is so important. More than 250 private landowners are participating in Audubon Vermont’s Forest Bird Initiative. Audubon provides a free assessment of the property’s habitat quality for a suite of 40 breeding songbirds, followed by recommendations for improving forest management.


Sharpless counts a couple of inches away from the sapsucker hole, tilts an old-fashioned bit and brace into the tree, then cranks the brace until it sinks about an inch below the bark. The golden sapwood curls around the bit like creamed butter, and a small stream of clear sap starts trickling from the wound. Into the hole she plugs a metal “spile,” or spout, that has a fin on the top to hang a bucket and a little fin on the bottom for funneling sap. She then taps the spile with a hammer, listening for a change in sound: Tink, tink, tink, tink, thunk.

The roots of sugar making stretch far back in American history. Folklore says the Iroquois first stumbled on this wonder when a chief threw his tomahawk into a tree one spring night and left it there when he went off to hunt in the morning. As the weather warmed, sap began to drip from the tomahawk’s scar, collecting in a container that had been left at the tree’s base. Tribe members soon discovered the water’s slightly sweet taste. 

One theory about how they took that sugar water and transformed it into syrup is called the “hot-rock” method. At a small campfire along the trail loop, Audubon Vermont teacher-naturalist Mike Simpson is running a demonstration. He shows how the Native Americans might have heated softball-sized rocks on the fire. Then he lifts the smoldering orbs with the most primitive of tongs—deer antlers—and dumps them in a water-filled vessel made from a hollowed-out tree trunk. Steam swells into the air, its scent evoking marshmallows toasted on an open fire. As the water boils, the liquid evaporates, eventually leaving only sugar. Had Simpson stopped the boiling earlier, the result would have been maple syrup, albeit something a little less refined than the finished syrup Shirley Johnson is serving up over ice in the center’s main building.

Johnson oversees the day’s pièce de résistance. To make “sugar on snow,” she tells me, you heat the syrup to at least 232 degrees Fahrenheit, then drizzle it slowly over shaved ice. Twist the chilled syrup onto a spoon and it instantly becomes “soft ball candy,” a gooey, caramel mouthful of taffy that is sure to give you a sugar rush. To cut the sweet and cleanse the palate, these Vermonters serve it with a dill pickle, a pairing comparable to the yin-and-yang tang of Chinese sweet-and-sour sauce. The crunch of the pickle does indeed cut the sweet—and zings my taste buds.

I start to wonder aloud what else within sight might go well with the leftover warm syrup. Then I spot the coffee pot across the room. “Now you’re thinking like a Vermonter,” says Shallow, pointing out that coffee beans—like maple sap—can be grown and harvested in ways that protect bird habitat rather than destroying it. Indeed, farms growing coffee the traditional way—beneath a shady tropical tree canopy—shelter more birds than any other agricultural landscape (see “Gold Standard,” May-June 2011).

Marry that coffee and a swirl of maple syrup and you have a heavenly combo: the promise for a future where birds can continue to breed in the north and winter in the south.