Thursday, March 15, 2012

Sugarin' Season

Mild daytime temperatures and cool nights mean one thing in Vermont this time of year: Sugarin’ Season. Last weekend I went over to visit our friends David and Louse Brynn, who are some of the first people we met when we moved to Bristol twenty years ago. Louise is a 7th generation Bristolite whose ancestors seem to have had a hand in all aspects of local business and general running-of-the-town since their arrival. The Brynns live in a house that they built themselves (something I still find inconceivable and awe-inspiring) on 33 acres of family land that Louise has graced with stone art: rambling stone walls lead up a path to a tree house (which features hardwood floors and I can attest sleeps a family of four, and which they also built themselves); stone balancing sculptures rise up from an overgrown meadow and dot the lawn sloping down to their garden, bordered with espaliered pear trees. If it sounds idyllic, it is.

Photo by Devon Brynn

The land is also abundant with sugar maples which, for the past twenty-two years, David and Louise have tapped to make maple syrup. At one point, briefly, they used rubber tubing to increase their production and sold some of their syrup commercially, but they prefer to do it the old fashioned way: collecting the sap in sixty metal buckets attached to the trees and carrying it down to their sugarhouse (also built by them) to pour into their wood-fired  “rack,” the apparatus that transforms the sap into syrup.

“I like walking in the woods, collecting the sap myself. It’s meditative," David explains. "You have a relationship with the trees.”  A forester by profession and founder of Vermont Family Forests, a nonprofit conservation organization, he knows something about trees.

As we walk through the woods collecting sap, bluebirds soar and dive overhead. “We have four pairs,” Louise says, pointing them out. She’s a dental assistant in her day job, but it’s clear that her heart is here, with the bluebirds and her stone work and her woodworking shop, which occupies the same building as their sugaring operation. Their property is less than two miles from the village center, but it feels completely removed from the outside world.

Back in the sugarhouse, David pours the buckets of sap into the rack, a stainless steel contraption in which the sap moves through a series of panels as it boils down to the correct density. It takes forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, a process that lasts about one hour in their rack, the smallest commercial size available. The fact that it’s powered by wood is unusual in this day and age, but that’s what imparts their syrup with its delectable, subtly smoky flavor.

Photo by Devon Brynn

Steam blasts off the surface, filling the small space we’re standing in with a complex, faintly sweet aroma that blends with the wood smoke in an irresistible combination. It’s the definition of coziness on a chilly, late winter day. “With this rig, we could do up to 500 taps, but we’re doing it small and smart,” David says as he checks the hydrometer for the syrup’s viscosity. 

Louise adds one drop of extra virgin olive oil to the bubbling liquid to reduce its surface tension and jokes, “This is vegan maple syrup.” Apparently some “old timers” used to toss in a slab of bacon for the same effect.

David and Louise’s two grown daughters, Devon and Callie, come home every year to participate in the process, and often other friends drop by. Today a young couple, Scott and Kelly Hamshaw, have stopped in to help. As we all wait for the sap to boil down into syrup, the conversation is far-ranging: politics, education, religion, and a little town gossip thrown in for good measure. David is an Irishman by ancestry and has the gift of gab. It’s evident that these conversations around the rack are as satisfying as the sap bubbling away within it. When he does find himself on his own in the sugarhouse, he jots down notes for his writings on a chalkboard that used to hang in the old Bristol High School.

Time for a tasting. David turns a tap on the side of the rack, allowing the syrup to drip slowly into a filter—an ingenious device made up of eight layers of felt, which removes particles and “shines the syrup up” so it’s a beautifully clear amber color.

Louise passes out shot glasses and we hold them under the tap to catch the unfiltered syrup. It’s hot, but no one can resist taking a sip. I’ve sampled many local syrups, but theirs is especially distinctive, possessing a delicious caramelized flavor that reminds me of toffee. “It’s from a longer, slower cooking time,” David says. 

Photo by David Brynn

I take another sip and David says, “That syrup was in the tree an hour and a half ago.” It doesn’t get any fresher than this. Because it’s unfiltered, I can feel the small particles suspended in the liquid, which only add character. “It’s like whole wheat bread,” David says, explaining that years ago syrup wasn’t filtered, but that the conventional aim now is for it to be as clear as possible. Louise shows me a second filtering system set up on a stove from which the syrup is finally drawn into jars.

Like most Vermonters, the Brynns enjoy their syrup poured over pancakes and waffles, and Louise makes killer maple walnut bars. But their favorite use of it is as a sweetener in their homemade flatbread dough, which they fire up in an outdoor clay beehive oven that they built on their property. Now I know the secret for why their flatbreads are so scrumptious!

Sugaring is subject to the whims of nature. You have to pay attention to the weather and be ready to drop everything when the conditions are ideal. If there’s an early spring, like we’re experiencing this year, the season can be cut short, sometimes dramatically. The Brynns usually harvest around fifteen gallons of syrup, but this year they’ll be lucky to end up with half that. For them, though, it’s clearly not about the outcome; it's about the process. Being outside among the trees, participating in a Vermont tradition, and sharing the experience--and the product--with family and friends: that’s what makes the season so sweet.


  1. Thank you for a beautiful description of sugaring season!

    1. Thanks for visiting, Linda. It was a fun afternoon--and just in time since it looks like the season is now over unfortunately.

  2. Great post!!! Loved reading this about my cousins :)

    1. Thanks! Since you're a cousin, I would imagine that you've helped out with the sugaring at some point too.