Sugaring in Vermont Part III: In the Sugarhouse
When dusk falls at Dragonfly Sugarworks, the wood-fired evaporator has been roaring for hours and will continue until late in the night. A roiling plume of steam pours upwards, and sparks explode from the chimney into the clear and starry night.
All evening neighbors walk up the dark road, arriving with dogs, children, and bottles of whiskey to stand with us in the sugar house. This is a springtime ritual in Vermont, a way to celebrate the coming warmth, socialize after the relative isolation of winter, and drink hot maple syrup as soon as its made.
Inside the building it is cold and foggy, open on one side to receive pallets of split logs. The evening unspools in repeating loops; every eight minutes, a timer buzzes, and we throw open the heavy door of the stove to feed the intense blaze. We check the sap level and temperature, periodically drawing off sap into a stainless steel drum. Pallets of wood are emptied and refilled, and through the boiling we burn a cord and a half of wood which releases a staggering amount of energy.
Until recently I imagined evaporators as huge soup pots, but the reality is more elegant, the finely tuned result of many long winters' tinkering. The evaporator is a large, flat pan divided into s-shaped troughs filled with increasingly reduced sap which is pushed along by the denser, colder sap trickling in from a covered flue pan. Like the evaporator, the flue pan sits directly over the long, rectangular fire box, and is shaped with deep channels to increase the surface area of the heating sap. When the sap in the flue pan gives off steam, it is collected and channeled into pipes that run through the steam-away, an open vat sitting atop the flue pan. The cold sap pours into the steam-away, and is heated by the waste steam from the flue pan, increasing the efficiency of the evaporation process by about 50%.
For all the beauty of this system, from tapped trees to billowing steam, the revelation is the syrup itself, streaming from a hand operated tap every several minutes. Like spring itself, the syrup changes with day and by whim, a startling expression of the shifting season. Our first days' boiling produced barrels of delicate syrup with a warm buttery taste, and the complex bloom of vanilla. A week later it had taken on a burnished color, and the vanilla was replaced by a robust caramel.
Paul tastes each batch, noting color and flavor in a logbook. A glass bottle of each syrup is set on the window sill in a gorgeous spectrum from pale gold to mahogany, a variegated reminder of the evanescent season. Syrup, like spring, is best approached day by day.