Maple Syrup is a traditional, simple, natural food that has been enjoyed in many shapes and forms for millennia. Red squirrels have been known to nibble twigs in spring, allowing the sap to run down the bark of the tree. The sun would dry the sap into a thin streak of syrup that squirrels will later return to lick and enjoy.
The Native Americans indigenous to north eastern North America also discovered the spring run of sweet maple sap, and developed methods to harness and condense it. Using birch bark buckets, they would gather sap, and then heat stones in a fire to be placed in the buckets, evaporating the sap into a thick, rich syrup. A sample of Abenaki legend is available at the following link:
When the colonists arrived, they learned from the Native peoples about this seasonal source of sugar early in spring. The coopers crafted wooden buckets to collect the sap, and the tin smiths bent and soldered tin pans to boil the sap into syrup. Wood fires were burnt under the pans to generate the heat necessary to boil the syrup. The high heat of the wood fire licking at the pans gave the syrup a robust, caramelized, smokey, “mapley” flavor (ask the old timers around our parts and “mapley” is the adjective they use for the strong flavor of good maple syrup). The lighter colored syrup was called fancy because it could be made into an off-white, mildly flavored table sugar that could be compared to cane sugar, which was at the time a luxury import in northern New England. The two grade A’s were medium amber and dark amber, which were a valuable export for Vermont’s burgeoning rural economy. Then there was the “grade B” syrup, which was anything but B grade. It became the syrup of choice for the majority of Vermonters. With its robust flavor and intimidating color, it was harder to market out of state in a glass bottle compared to the beautiful ambers, and so earned the grade B title, but the intense flavor quickly endeared it to those who had tried them all, and knew good flavor when they tasted it. Then and now B (now known as Dark and Robust) is preferred in complex recipes where a lighter syrup might be overpowered by other ingredients. Please see this link for more information on maple grading, then and now:
L o g g i n g
The wood for heating our evaporator is harvested from our sugarbush. This wood is primarily beech suffering from bark disease, in addition to damaged, poorly formed, or declining trees of many varieties, both hardwood and soft. The culling of these undesirable trees enhances the health of the residual stand. Our harvest practices are focused on increasing the health of the residual stand, while maintaining habitats for a variety of wildlife that calls our sugarbush home.
One of the largest changes in efficiency of production came from reverse osmosis. Reverse osmosis is the process of pushing liquids through a membrane, separating water from other particles in the solution. It is the same technology used to desalinate sea water for drinking on ships. In our case, we use RO to take sap from a concentration of roughly 2% sugar (or 2 brix) to roughly 20% sugar (20 brix). Although sap must be boiled to 66.9% when at room temperature, condensing the sap from two to twenty percent removes 90% of the excess water from the sap, allowing us to reduce our fuel consumption by 90%. For us that is the difference between burning roughly 400 cords of firewood yearly, and 40 cords. Being that a cord is a split and stacked pile 4’x4’x8’, we are saving a substantial number of trees, as well as labor. The three or four gallons of water per gallon of syrup that we still boil out of our maple sap the hard way offers plenty of time to caramelize the syrup and create the rich, complex, mapley flavor everyone knows and loves.
T a p p i n g
After tapping our mature maples, using our network of tubing and a vacuum to collect the sap, and then sending the sap through the RO to remove the majority of the water, we cook our syrup over a wood fire on our evaporator, with wood harvested from our sugarbush.
Many technologies have changed sugaring as we know it. Syrup is now evaporated on stainless steel pans, instead of english tin, which used to have lead in it to make it easier to solder. We have gone from galvanized buckets to gather our sap to food grade polyethylene tubing. This revolution has saved countless hours of hard, though rewarding labor. Instead of trudging through spring mud with a bucket in each hand to collect sap, a system of tubing now conducts the sap straight down the mountain, right to the sugar shack. Though the lines do have to be continually checked for leaks, it does allow each man in the woods to harvest from many more trees than before.
B o i l i n g
After boiling our sap into syrup, it is filtered through a diatomaceous earth filter to remove niter, a sand like precipitate in the syrup that forms from the mineral in the sap. The filtered syrup is then hot barrelled to prevent the growth of bacteria, graded, numbered, and recorded, and stored away until we are ready to pack it into bottles and ship it to your home, grocery store, or specialty shop.
Rugged Ridge’s steward, Josh Seidman, worked on several sugarbushes, from a rustic, wood fired, smaller operation with 2,000 taps, half on buckets, and all wood fired, to a roughly 80,000 tap industrial sugarbush, with giant steam evaporators. After seeing the breadth of methods of producing syrup, and the differences in quality between the techniques, he decided to build Rugged Ridge’s sugar shack focused on environmental stewardship, invigoration of the local rural economy, and most importantly the production of traditional, high quality maple syrup grandma would be proud to have spread on her flapjacks.
We have now done the work required to produce this syrup the way we have envisioned, but it is all for nothing if you, the consumer, don’t realize the difference in production technique, and appreciate it with your support and enjoyment of our product. We have gone through pains not to charge a premium price for our premium product, but we do need you to demand it, to realize what sets it apart, and to enjoy its mapley richness. Rest assured with every bottle of Rugged Ridge Forest’s wood fired, organic, pure Vermont maple syrup you buy, you will get all the flavor, love, and nutrition we could pack into the bottle.
Thanks for your support.