Vermont Maple Syrup Tours and Activities

Posted on Oct. 31, 2022

Come spring, as the days get warmer and the snow turns to corn, Vermonters start to boil the sap from maples into sweet syrup.

Sugar Slalom event in Stowe, VT.
In March, as the days get longer and the temperatures rise, Vermonters turn to the long-time ritual of boiling the sap from maple trees into sweet maple syrup. After a few good days with temperatures well above freezing during the day and well below freezing at night, the maples start to “wake up,” and thanks to the freeze-thaw cycles, the sap starts to flow. That’s when the Vermont maple syrup season begins.

Across the state, clouds of steam rise from sugar houses where 40 gallons of sap get boiled down to make one gallon of maple syrup. Around Stowe, there are so many sugar houses that at times it feels as if the entire valley hangs with the sweet scent of maple syrup.

Native Americans introduced the first European settlers to “sugaring” to produce maple syrup or the more refined maple sugar. It quickly became the first cash crop that the Green Mountain’s farmers would produce each spring.

Skiing and sugaring, as the process is still called, have long gone hand in hand. In 1939, the first Sugar Slalom was held on the slopes of what is now Stowe Mountain Resort, and it became an annual tradition. Back then, racers careened down Nose Dive. At the finish, they were treated to “sugar on snow,” warm Vermont maple syrup poured over cold snow that could be then scooped up with a stick and eaten like toffee as it hardened.

Vermont Maple Sugaring: A Community Tradition

The Sugar Slalom now takes place on the slopes at Spruce Peak, but the “sugar on snow” ritual remains — a sweet end to the season for young ski racers. These days, much of the syrup the racers consume is provided by Slopeside Syrup, the sugaring operation run by members of the famous Cochran family of Olympic ski racers and made from trees tapped right off the slopes of their small Richmond ski area, Cochran’s. It’s not unusual to see a member or two of the Cochran clan on the race course, as well.

During the winter, the Cochrans and many of Vermont’s roughly 1,600 commercial sugarmakers work around the clock to drill new taps into each individual sugar maple in their plot, or sugarbush as the wood lot is called. They canvass the woods, visiting every tree, assessing its health and drilling a new hole to allow last year’s taphole to heal. Then they connect that “tap” to a network of plastic tubes that runs down to a main line that connects with their sugarhouse.

Come spring, the same cycles of freezing cold nights and warm, sunny days that turn November’s hard-pack base into March’s mashed potatoes and perfect corn snow kick Vermont’s sugar maples into action to produce gallons upon gallons of sap.

At the Trapp Family Lodge, skiers on the cross-country trails will see blue sap lines running through the woods like spider webs, as well as some of the traditional buckets that hang below the taps on trees. While the blue lines bring the sap directly to the property’s sugarhouse, the buckets are sometimes gathered here the old-fashioned way: by horse and sleigh.

At the Trapp sugarhouse, you can stop in and watch the boiling process as the sap flows into the wood-fired evaporators and is reduced to a thick syrup. Maple sap straight from the tree looks like crystal clear water and has a 2% sugar content, so it needs to be boiled down and concentrated to make syrup, or maple sugar.

Before the watery, liquid sap is introduced to a massive evaporator, most commercial operations run it through a reverse osmosis machine, which allows as much as 75% to 80%of the water to be extracted before it is boiled in the evaporator, saving time and energy. It’s then funneled into “evaporator” tanks that often sit atop an “arch” or firebox. When the thermometer in the tank hits 219 degrees, the syrup is ready to be drawn off, filtered and bottled. If it’s evaporated even further, it can be turned into maple sugar.

As a general rule, it takes about 40 gallons of maple sap to produce a single gallon of pure maple syrup. Over the course of a season, the color and flavor profile of the syrup shifts, from the lightest “Golden Color and Delicate Taste” at the start, to “Dark Color and Robust Taste” to “Processing Grade” at the end. Sugarmakers are as attuned to the slight differences in taste as vintners are to their wines.

Though modern technology like reverse osmosis allows larger commercial operations to either boil until just after dark, when the sap stops running, or to automate the process through the night, many sugarmakers, whether backyard hobbyists or small-scale producers, still man their evaporators through the wee hours of the morning as Vermonters have done since the 1700s.

They may invite friends and family to stack wood and feed the fire that fuels their evaporator (larger operations use gas). Kids skim foam off the surface of the hot sap.

Some serve big meals and feed their neighbors as thanks for their help, inviting them to gather, local craft beers in hand, in the steamy, gently sweet air of the sugarhouse. Some of the favorite side dishes served with sugar on snow are sour pickles or cider donuts.

Find Vermont Maple Syrup Tours

Each March, sugarhouses around Vermont open their doors to the public for a chance to watch the process in action, sample some sugar on snow and buy the first fresh bottles of Vermont maple syrup, sugar or other maple products. To find out when the next Maple Open House weekends are, check in with the Vermont Sugar Makers Association.

Around Stowe, several sugarhouses are open to the public at other times as well, including the Trapp Family Lodge’s, which you can only get to by snowshoe or on skis, and you will need a trail pass. At the Nebraska Knoll Sugarfarm, Lew and Audrey Coty have been sugaring for more than 40 years. Their rustic sugarhouse is up a long dirt road that’s often muddy come spring so it’s best to have a sturdy 4WD vehicle. The most accessible, Stowe Maple Products is on Route 100, just before the junction with Moscow Road as you come into Stowe from the south. Owners Robin and Stephen Pierson keep their retail shop open year-round and will even ship syrup or their other products home for you.

Before planning a trip to the sugarhouses, it’s best to call ahead. Sugaring, like skiing, is weather-dependent.

Produced in partnership with Vermont Ski + Ride Magazine.