The first Morse family sugaring ancestor arrived in Cabot in 1789. For 150 years, the family tapped trees and boiled sap in Maple Corner. In 1952, the family moved to its current farm in East Montpelier. With over 60 years sugaring experience, Burr Morse is the family’s maple patriarch, as well as its boiler-in-chief. He is also a prolific writer and a dedicated trombonist.
As the Vermont ski season starts to wind down, in late February and early March, the sugaring season is just getting underway. Tom Morse, Burr’s son, was the one out in the forests this year, tromping around on snowshoes during an unusually frigid snap with power drill, hammer and splicing tools in hand, setting taps on some 3600 trees.
Trees about 12 inches in diameter are “only” about 40 years old and should only have a single tap. Older, longer serving trees, can take two or more taps. Some trees have been sharing their sap for many years, evidenced by multiple piercings from recent years (which rapidly dry up and heal over against bugs and disease).
“My daughter will be the ninth generation,” Tom says, without an ounce of doubt that his daughter would step into the family business. A beat later, he adds, “It’s a good, clean life.”
The sap finally began running in early April, after a warm spike that ended up cutting the 3-4 week season in half. A good sugar run needs a prolonged period of nights in the 20s and days in the 50s. If things warm up too quickly, the sap stops running. If it gets too cold, the sap freezes in the lines.
Sap is pumped via a complicated network of pressurized plastic tubing into large stainless steel hoppers. Then it is transported back to the farm and run through a reverse osmosis process that separates sugar molecules from water molecules, removing up to 80 percent of the water from the sap (saving lots of boiling). Then the boiling begins. It takes about 30-50 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. This year, Morse got 920 gallons of syrup from their trees.
The fuel for the boiler fire should be green wood chips. Dry chips get too hot and cause too much smoking and too much heat. The syrup is done (and “drawn off”) when it is 66.9 percent natural tree sugar (the official Vermont requirement), at 7 degrees above the boiling point of water, or 219 degrees Fahrenheit.
Sugar on Snow attracts thousands to Morse Farm during the sugaring season. Some stop in the sugar shack to watch the sap being boiled or to ask questions, but most head straight for the warm syrup, which customers pour over “snow” (shaved ice). Cooling atop the snow, it turns to a luscious, mapley nougat that slowly melts in your mouth. This is traditionally enjoyed with warm coffee, donut holes, and a dill pickle to cut the sweetness.
Morse also sells loads of syrup by the pint, quart and gallon, and serves up one of the best maple creemees in the state.
Elliot Morse oversees the family’s year-round maple candy production, a process that looks simple, but is surprisingly exacting. Syrup must be heated in a “pig” to precisely 243º F (lower than that and it is not creamy; higher than that and the candy is brittle), cooled, and then carefully streamed into rubber molds. “You gotta be careful not to overfill them,” Elliot says, “that’s money lost!”