By John “Josh” Fitzhugh
I have loved maple syrup all my life, but I think I became infected with the sugaring bug at 2 am in March of 1983, when I was 35-years-old, my son Nick was 4, and my daughter Eliza was a year and a half.
I was living on Liberty Street in Montpelier at the time, and we had two good-sized maple trees on our postage stamp front lawn. It being spring, we tapped these trees, hung a plastic milk jug on each tap and waited. I would check to see whether there was a “run” each day when I returned from work in Burlington.
Of course, collecting sap is only part of the sugaring process. You have to boil it down. (Every Vermonter knows the ratio of sap to syrup, so I’ll skip that bit.) My plan was to place some bricks on the driveway, span them with the grill from the Weber, place a turkey pan on top, pour in the sap, find some dry kindling, and start a fire.
It was slow going, with me feeding the fire slowly and watching steam rise into the alley between us and our neighbors. Generally, given my schedule, on weeknights we’d start late afternoon or early evening. The kids would come out and inspect the operation before going to bed. I’d stay up until I had something like syrup.
One night I got started late, I guess, or there was an abundance of sap. (Like a lot of sugaring, the details are lost in the fog of sugarmaking steam. Did I say I also enjoyed a beer while I sugared?) I fed the fire, came in, laid down on the couch, and promptly fell asleep, only to awaken at 2 am and stumble back outside.
The night was chilly but thankfully the fire was out and hadn’t left a hole in the macadam driveway. The sap was thick and, though I couldn’t tell then, extremely dark. I brought the turkey pan into the house, poured its contents into a glass jar and went to bed.
The next morning I examined my harvest. On the bottom of the jar was the blackest goo you could imagine, a combination of ashes, charcoal, and niter, a grainy residue created by boiling sap. On the top was a somewhat clearer syrup of the sweetest flavor you could imagine. “Yes!” I said to all who could hear me. “We’ve got syrup!” The kids were thrilled, of course; my wife, I think, less so.
As the years passed and we expanded “our” sugarbush from our front lawn, to all of Liberty Street and North Street, to a finishing pan set up in the Heaton House backyard, to a real arch and evaporator on Pearl Street, and finally to a 750-tap sugarbush in West Berlin, sugaring has become more of a collective effort involving multiple people and better techniques. We constantly fight against the vagaries of weather and equipment, spending hours tapping trees, collecting wood, cleaning and repairing sap lines, and, of course, boiling sap down to its essence. None of this for small-time sugarmakers such as my wife and me makes any economic sense whatsoever.
So do I regret being infected on Liberty Street at 2 am on a March workday in 1983? Have some pure Vermont maple syrup and you will get your answer.
Josh and his wife Wibs McLain produce about 200 gallons of maple syrup each spring on their farm in West Berlin. Josh is a member of The Bridge’s board of directors.