Creating More 'Maple-Ier' Syrup in Vermont

Island Pond, Vermont, is home to the Maple Guild's 25,000 acres of maple trees. (Photo: The Maple Guild)

In Vermont, The Maple Guild currently has about 350,000 well-cared for trees tapped. The taps carry sap through a series of tubes and send it on its way to fulfilling its destiny as maple syrup. That syrup is turned into a variety of organic products including traditional maple syrup, maple vinegar, maple water and more.

I learned quite a bit about how The Maple Guild, a company that bought and tapped its first trees in 2013, is being environmentally responsible and innovative with the nectar that comes from its trees after speaking with John Campbell, vice president of marketing.

Here's one thing I didn't know: It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Now I understand why real maple syrup is costly. If you're going to spend the money on the real deal instead of pancake syrup that has no real maple syrup in it at all, it's good to know you're buying from a responsible source.

Tapping the trees

tapped maple trees
Tubes are attached to the taps in the trees to carry the sap efficiently to where it can be turned into syrup. (Photo: Oliver Parini/The Maple Guild)

The picture most of us probably have in our head of maple tree tapping is something like a faucet stuck in the side of a tree with a bucket hanging to catch the sap as it drips out. The Maple Guild uses tubes that carry the sap from the tree. The forest that is home to the hundreds of thousands of trees has a grid of these tubes that is high enough off the ground to go above moose antlers. Still, sometimes a particularly large moose will knock into a line, or a porcupine or beaver will sink its teeth into one, which is a risk when you're sharing a forest with its natural residents.

"We have 62 full-time employees who go out every year and hammer a little hole into the tree and put the tap in," said Campbell. That's 5,645 trees per employee (and next year the goal is to have an additional 100,000 trees tapped). It's all done by hand, though, and then 6,000 miles of tube is run through the forest. Gravity and a vacuum system take the tap as soon as it starts flowing, usually sometime between early January until mid- or late April.

To care for the trees properly, the employees remove the taps each year to allow the tree to heal. The following year, they tap at least a foot away from the prior tap mark.

"It's incredibly labor intensive," said Campbell. "I had no idea what went into maple production before. It is incredible what these guys do on a daily basis to make this product. It never ceases to blow my mind what these 62 guys are doing during this season."

It's good forest stewardship, but it's also smart business sense. Healthier trees give you better syrup.

Responsible forest management

Maple Guild tapping tree in a different spot
To keep the trees healthy, they never tap the same spot twice. (Photo: The Maple Guild)

The Maple Guild's products are certified organic. Nothing is added to the sap while processing it into maple syrup, and the forest is not used for anything but sugaring and some recreation like snowmobiling. Nothing is done to the land that would create an environment that wasn't organic.

What makes the group extra special is how they care for the forest.

"This area was set for timber," said Campbell. "We pushed hard to the spot and not use it for timber. We take care of the trees. It sounds like 'The Lorax,' I know, but being stewards of the trees and the forests is what we're doing."

In addition to giving the trees time to heal from each tapped hole, they are careful only to choose mature trees of the right size. If the tree is too young or too small according to regulations, they don't tap it.

They're also revitalizing the area. The factory The Maple Guild uses is an old Ethan Allen factory that closed down decades ago. They've added full-time jobs for an area that's been relatively dilapidated since the 1970s.

Steam-crafted maple products

steam processing at the Maple Guild
A steam-based processing system converts the sap quickly and at a lower temperature than more traditional methods. (Photo: The Maple Guild)

The traditional method of creating syrup from sap is to boil it over direct heat. It takes a long time and often creates a burnt product. The Maple Guild does not use direct heat; it uses steam from above in what's called an evaporator. With this process, they can make a 55-gallon drum of syrup in less than three minutes which is significantly less processed than syrup that's been boiled. It also tastes more pure, or "more maple-ier," as Campbell puts it. The syrup the Maple Guild produces goes from tree to table, and every bit of it is Vermont Grade A golden. They sell it as-is, a flavorful syrup to pour on pancakes, but they also have fun and create innovative maple-based products with it.

In addition to the traditional syrup, they create a bourbon-barrel syrup that's aged for two to three months in Kentucky Bourbon barrels, as well as a vanilla infused syrup and a salted caramel syrup that I've taken to pouring over plain oatmeal. A little creates great flavor.

Other products include maple cream, maple vinegar, sweetened iced tea, and functional maple waters that are a great source of manganese and also contain Vitamin B, antioxidants and added electrolytes.

There are many uses for all the products The Maple Guild creates, including using the syrup for cocktails, like this Maple Manhattan.

Maple Manhattan cocktail

Maple Manhattan

Spray rocks glass with orange flower water. Add ice, then:

  • 2 ounces rye whiskey
  • .25 ounce maple syrup
  • .25 ounce vermouth
  • dash or two of orange bitters

Stir and garnish with an orange peel.

The Maple Guild products will be showing up on stores shelves on the East Coast very soon, and they are available now on the company's website and Amazon.