Sweet as maple syrup

An admissions counselor once asked me what separates Middlebury from similar small liberal arts colleges.

Well, Middlebury is in Vermont, and as such we have come to expect extremely high standards of maple syrup and other maple-based products. Next question, please.

The level of reverence given to the mighty maple could seem silly to those uninitiated in the sugar-happy way of life, but maple products make up a significant portion of Vermont’s economy-over $30 million per year! Passing off sub-par, adulterated products has always been looked down upon by Vermont natives, but Vermont’s senators are hoping to take things one step further and make false advertising of supposedly “maple” products a felony. I’d be all for the new law, as maple sugaring, the process of collecting maple sap and boiling it (and boiling it and boiling it and boiling it…) to make syrup takes a lot of work. As part of my environmental chemistry research with Professor Costanza-Robinson, I’ve had the chance to spend many brisk spring afternoons collecting samples of maple sap, and I’ve even tried making my own syrup with some of the leftover sap.

Maple sugaring season happens in early-to-mid spring when temperatures dip below freezing at night but are above freezing during the day. This change in temperature keeps large amounts of sap flowing into either the traditional buckets hung from trees or into the plastic vacuum lines used by large scale (several thousand tree) operations. Molly’s lab is examining the relationship between soil characteristics, mineral content in sap, and syrup flavor compounds and has been analyzing the sap from five trees on campus for the past several years. Each afternoon one of the students in lab collects 50 milliliters of sap from each tree and can either dump out the extra sap or use it to make maple syrup.

Making maple syrup isn’t a difficult process; you simply start to boil sap and keep it going. However, it’s also a bit disheartening, as it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Lugging an enormous water cooler full of sap from the woods on the edge of campus then spending three or four hours in a hot kitchen only to end up with just enough syrup for one pancake has given me an immense appreciation for “real” maple sugarers. As much as I love that sweet maple taste, I’d rather leave the work to the experts and pick up my syrup either at the local farmers’ market or in the Middlebury College dining halls.

My favorite way to eat my maple syrup is to mix it with plain yogurt for a delicious, just-sweet-enough treat. I may or may not do this almost every morning for breakfast…

In any case, I’d like to leave you with a parting verse by John G. Saxe that appeared in the Vermont Department of Agriculture Bulletin in 1915:

“Men, women, maple sugar and horses;
The first are strong, the latter fleet,
The second and third are exceedingly sweet,
And all are uncommonly hard to beat.”

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