Sap House Rules
If you know what to look for, you can see the remains of ancient sap houses dotting the Vermont landscape like rusted hulks of antique cars, doors askew, creepers headed up toward the eaves. Unlike hunting camps, which are found deep in the woods, sap houses are usually built near roads for easy access, so they are readily discovered, even by a casual observer. Many of these tumble-down shacks still come alive in late February and March, when the nights are cold but the days push up over freezing and the sap runs freely from the sugar maples to fill galvanized buckets and holding tanks to overflowing.
This arrangement may sound crude, but, as in much cooking, there is a science to the art of sugaring. Each day begins with a measurement of barometric pressure. This will affect the temperature at which the sap boils-- some days it boils at 212 degrees, other days at 210-- and therefore the temperature at which the syrup is done, which is always 7 degrees above the boiling temperature. Sugarers also measure the density of the syrup. This is done with the help of a hydrometer, which consists of a narrow metal cylinder and a glass tube that floats inside it when the cylinder is filled with hot syrup. This is the best gauge of when the syrup is ready for canning.
Things get started when the cold sap is run into pans, and the arch-- the assemblage of evaporator pans, firebox, and smokestack-- is fired up. Within 15 minutes, the sap is bubbling, and great clouds of steam head skyward through the open louvers on top of the building.
The process sounds simple enough, but there are rules. First, you never start a boil unless you have enough sap. It takes a wood fire a long time to cool down, and if you run out of sap, the pans will scorch or even melt. The second rule is to burn hot and quick, reducing 50 or 60 gallons of sap to 1 gallon of syrup as quickly as possible. This requires dry wood that has been split into small pieces. Finally, you have to pay keen attention. The sap can boil over in seconds (a dab of butter on the surface of boiling sap will instantly stop a boil-over); stepping out, even to grab a cold beer from a snowbank, often has serious consequences.
Boiling sap, for most Vermonters, is about passion, not profit. The wife of one committed sugarer figured out that her husband earned about 6 cents an hour. She offered him a raise to 25 cents if he would do some work around the house, but he knew what all sap boilers know. Sitting around a hot arch on a cold March day, and sometimes boiling through the night, is not about economics. The hot steam swirls, the pulsing wood coals blast enough heat to cause a sunburn, the sap jumps and froths in the pans, and neighbors swap stories, some of them true. We are refugees, huddled in the dark around fires, sitting in lawn chairs like lesser kings of New England, convinced that we live in a world of our own making.
In my sap house, I sit with my 5-year-old son, Charlie, in front of our own small arch, watching the boil, making maple snowcones, throwing 2-inch bits of wood onto the hot fire every few minutes. Just down the dirt road, my neighbor Tom sugars with his now grown-up son, Nate, checking the taps, collecting the sap, and adjusting the float. Here we are, fathers and sons, sitting in shacks in late winter, working side by side, distilling memories into thick syrup. We follow the rules, boiling hot and fast, trying to prepare for the future. But as we stoke the fires, we sense that this easy partnership burns brightly for only a short while. Even summer tourists can see that in time, all sap houses turn wild, roof lines sagging, stinging nettles pushing up around the foundations. That is why Vermonters know to pay attention when it matters. In these sweet short years, even a moment's inattention can have serious consequences.