By David Scherr
The quiet stillness of late winter in the forests of Vermont masks a bustling harvest, the largest of its kind in the United States. Maple trees are tapped, plastic tubing strung through leafless woods, and maple sap drips through the lines into sugarhouses across the state. Ramshackle sheds and slick new sugarhouses pump heat and smoke into the cold air, boiling oceans of maple sap into the sweet amber of Pure Vermont Maple Syrup. Vermont produced almost 40 million dollars worth in 2012 alone, far more than any other state.
In the spring, after the sap lines have run dry and the sugarhouses are quiet once again, Vermonters and vacationers celebrate the state’s maple-flavored bounty at the Vermont Maple Festival in St. Albans. This year the Maple Festival will be held from April 26-28.
More than 50,000 people come to the Maple Festival every year to tour sugarhouses, sample the best of Vermont’s maple products, start their day with pancake breakfasts, stuff themselves at maple buffet dinners, and learn how to cook their own maple-flavored meals.
If that isn’t enough, families can get thrills on carnival rides, runners can stretch their legs in the 8.5 mile “Sap Run,” and shoppers can hunt for treasure at the Antique Show. Those looking for a taste of rustic Vermont can enjoy the pony rides.
One of the premier events of the weekend is the Vermont Maple Syrup and Maple Products Contest. Sample jars of the finest maple syrup from all over Vermont, backlit and glowing in the displays, await a rating from experienced judges.
Vermont takes its maple syrup so seriously that the state legislature and the Vermont Department of Agriculture have enshrined in law the definitions of various categories of maple syrup that may be sold. The judges at the Maple Syrup Festival anoint winners in accordance with these legal definitions, giving credit for having the proper color, density, degree of light transmittance, and taste. For example, a “Fancy Grade” syrup must have “a delicately sweet, original maple flavor characteristic of fancy grade,” whereas a “Grade A Medium Amber” syrup may have “a flavor which is more pronounced than that of Fancy Grade, but which is not strong or unpleasant.”
Maple syrup is not the only product judged at the contest. The best maple sugar cakes, maple cream, maple fudge, and maple granulated sugar are also eligible for prizes, and participants and contestants can enjoy the maple products that Vermont has to offer.
The Maple Festival is the premier demonstration that Vermont is a small state with a big reason to celebrate maple syrup. In 2012, Vermont produced 750,000 gallons of the sweet syrup, 39 percent of all the maple syrup produced in the U.S. is more than double the yield of any other state. Because weather conditions were not ideal, 2012 was actually a slow year for syrup. In 2011, Vermont produced more than one million gallons.
The 2013 sugaring season is upon us, and if the days are warm enough and the nights are cold, the sap will once again run generously out of the maples and into the sugarhouses. Vermonters, Americans, and people all over the world will pour, eat, and otherwise devour the Green Mountain State’s sugary harvest, and the Vermont Maple Festival will celebrate it all once again.