When geese start honking their way north and brooks burst out of their icy prisons, Burr Morse can be found stoking the wood fire in his "sugarhouse" in Montpelier, Vt. (pop. 8,035), and boiling maple tree sap into gallons of sweet amber syrup.
"On a good day we make about 60 gallons," says Morse, 58, the seventh generation of his family to practice the spring ritual. "One time we made 90, and that was working just about ’round the clock."
For Morse, making maple syrup is equal parts hard work and spring celebration. It’s also a time-honored, family tradition.
Morse can trace his family’s sugar-making legacy to James Morse, who settled near the present-day town of Cabot, Vt., in the late 1700s. More recently, Harry Morse, who spent more than 70 seasons in the sugarhouse before dying in 1999, was the family’s sixth generation to pass on the lore, love and technical aspects of making maple syrup.
"He loved it," says Burr Morse of his father, as he tends a long shallow stainless steel pan of boiling syrup and plumes of fragrant steam rise through a vent atop the one-room, wood-sided sugarhouse. "He was one of those natural sugar makers."
Making maple syrup is an intense, sometimes bleary-eyed ritual that begins in early March and lasts four to six weeks. When the key ingredients for a sap run come together—freezing nights and warm days—Morse, his son Tom, 26, and brother Elliott, 67, boil like crazy, until the sap tapers off and the maple trees start to bud in April.
On the Morse Farm, sap is boiled at least two hours to evaporate excess water, leaving a thick, delectable liquid that’s drizzled over pancakes, waffles and biscuits. "It’s wonderful as a topping on vanilla ice cream, too," Burr says.
While sugaring season usually starts in earnest in early March, the work begins weeks earlier. As cross-country skiers glide by snow-covered trails, the Morses tromp through the woods on snowshoes or ride snowmobiles to check taps and five miles of small plastic tubing that draws sap from some 4,000 trees. Farmers traditionally collected sap in buckets using horse-drawn sleighs, but most large producers now use tubing and vacuum pumps to carry sap to the sugarhouse.
"Using buckets was more social in a way," Burr concedes, but he doesn’t miss slogging through the snow toting 3- and 5-gallon buckets full of sap. "It was hard work."
Despite such tiresome chores, Morse has fond childhood memories of sugarin’ time and traditions that accompanied the annual event. "We’d boil hot dogs in the syrup—sugar dogs, we called ‘em," he recalls.
Today, sugarin’ time remains a social occasion on the 240-acre Morse Farm. As sap begins to flow, family members and friends gather to stoke the fire, boil sap and offer free tours of the 75-year-old sugarhouse.
When talking with visitors, Morse keeps a keen eye on the pan of boiling sap while feeding wood chips into the furious fire below. On average, 40 gallons of sap must be boiled to produce one gallon of syrup, which can fetch $40 to $50, depending on its grade. The Morses make 800 to 1,000 gallons of syrup a year.
Like many Vermonters, Morse prefers the "medium amber" grade syrup over the "fancy" grade, the light golden standard. Maple syrup lovers can suit their own tastes during traditional "Sugar on Snow" events across the state in spring, when hot maple sugar is poured on crisp, clean snow and served with doughnuts, coffee—and often a dill pickle.
"It’s sweet and sour," says Morse, who’ll stick with doughnuts. "Some damn Yankee added the pickle," he adds with a laugh.
Visit www.morsefarm.com or call (800) 242-2740 for more information.