Into the Sugary Woods

Chris Pocher follows Alex Femiac through mountainsides of sugar maples, many of which were seedlings in the 1800s. It is late winter. The men walk across a powdering of fresh snow on old snowshoes that look like worn, oblong tennis rackets. They go from tree to tree, sizing them up and looking for old holes in their slate-gray trunks.

Alex drills a fresh hole an inch and a half deep. A wisp of sawdust falls to the snow. A trickle of liquid seeps out. Chris pulls what looks like a little metal hook from a pouch he is carrying, takes a small hammer, and inserts a miniature hollow spout into the opening.

An assistant follows, carrying 20 heavy buckets on his shoulder. He finds each new tap and hangs one of the buckets on the tree, cramping a cover and following footsteps through the snow to the next tree in this climax forest on this 2,500-acre farm near Stowe, Vermont. 

It’s not just any farm: it’s one that dates back to before the American Civil War, and it’s where the von Trapp family began living in 1942, after they had escaped Hitler’s Anschluss in their native Austria prior to World War II. Every American of a certain age can hum by heart the tunes conjured by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II in the Tony-winning 1959 Broadway play The Sound of Music and the Academy Award–winning 1965 movie.

Sugarmaker Chris Pocher tells me that they start tapping trees the last week of February but that the sap doesn’t normally flow freely until the beginning of March.

“We need warm days and cold nights,” he says. “The tree builds up pressure at night—somewhere below freezing, maybe 20°F. And then in the day, with air temperatures at, say, 40°, it relaxes and sap starts to flow.”

Most modern maple-sugaring operations employ an elaborate system of tubing and pipes that relies on gravity to efficiently move the sap downhill from steep slopes. In the lower sugarbush at Trapp Lodge, the sugaring team still taps some 600 trees with traditional galvanized buckets. They collect the sap daily in a 150-gallon tank pulled by horses and something called a dray: hemlock crossbeams mounted on front runners that are articulated to cut corners with the horses. This collection method goes back many hundreds of years to when the Abenaki Indians took a hatchet to the sugar maples and collected sap in birch-bark vessels, then reduced the sap by repeatedly submerging heated rocks in the liquid in a half-hollow log back at the village.

The modern-day tribal village and hollow log is, of course, the legendary Vermont sugarhouse: a sturdy, weathered wooden structure housing evaporators that reduce and coagulate the maple syrup. Back in the day, the evaporators were black cauldron kettles; now, for greater efficiency, they are flat, shallow stainless pans. But the ethereal effect is the same: smoke and steam escaping through chimneys and overhead openings in the roof.

Beneath that smoke and mist, Chris is the fireman. Every five minutes he feeds three- to four-foot hardwood splits into a raging, scarlet firebox that reaches a searing 1200°F, 10 to 14 hours a day at peak season.

All the while, head sugarmaker Alex watches the series of pans as the sap channels through, turning denser and sweeter with the heat. He’s tasting and testing with his hydro­meter, watching for the alchemy from 2 to 3 percent sugar to 67 percent sugar. All it takes is 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.    

Syrup through the Season

At the beginning of syrup season, the woods are still snowy. Everything is icebox cold. There is little or no bacteria. The sap that comes out of the tree has the texture of slightly slippery water. It’s clear—2 to 3 percent sugar. “We boil this down to grade-A syrup,” sugarmaker Chris Pocher says. “It’s delicate, light in color, a little bit nutty, buttery—perfect on vanilla ice cream.”

As the season progresses, the sap darkens slightly, to the hue of light-colored lemonade. This sap is boiled down to what is commonly called amber rich or medium amber; it’s what most people put on pancakes. As the sap darkens, the resulting syrup intensifies in flavor. “Maybe you take an acorn squash and cut it in half,” Pocher says. “You add butter and brandy and some of this syrup, and bake it.”

By the end of the sugaring year the boiled-down sap, containing much more bacteria, turns dark yellow and orange. It makes flavorful grade-A dark. “I’ll take some and add shallots and mushrooms and maybe a little balsamic vinegar,” Chris says, “and pour it over seared venison.” His choice of wine? Merlot. 

Step into a Sugarhouse 

Want to see how maple syrup is made? First, check out a video
in which Alex Femiac and Chris Pocher work their magic at
Then plan a visit to Vermont, where the 100 members of the state’s Maple Sugar Makers Association annually host Maple Open House Weekend, which in 2017 is set for March 25–26. This is an opportunity to see firsthand what goes on in one or more of the state’s many sugarhouses.

The Trapp Family Farm (, 800-826-7000) offers lodging and dining, and some other sugarhouses incorporate bed-and-breakfast facilities. For more information, visit or call (802) 858-9444.

If you’ll be flying in, note that Morrisville-Stowe State Airport in Morrisville (802-253-2332) is convenient to Stowe and has a 3,700-foot runway. Burlington International (802-863-2874), a larger commercial airport in South Burlington, has an 8,319-foot runway.

Thomas R. Pero is publisher of Wild River Press and the author of two books about fly fishing.