How a warmup and early winter sap run could affect Vermont’s maple season

Maple season is typically months away. But what happens when Vermont sees a warmup and maple season starts early?
Published: Jan. 2, 2023 at 5:44 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 2, 2023 at 6:40 PM EST
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FAIRFIELD, Vt. (WCAX) - Maple season is typically months away. But what happens when Vermont sees a warmup and maple season starts early? Lots of sugar-makers have their taps in trees in early December, so when the sap runs, they can collect.

It’s day one of boiling at Branon Family Maple Orchards in Fairfield.

“It’s a perfect time to get out there, check our leaks, turn our pumps on,” Evan Branon said.

A warmup at the end of 2022 meant boiling at the start of 2023. The Branon family has already collected roughly 100,000 gallons of sap. It’s early, but not unfathomable.

“We have definitely had similar runs before,” Branon said.

He says he remembers boiling last year right around Christmas. So while the warmth is unseasonable, the early sap run doesn’t cue alarm bells for these sugar-makers.

Though the sap is already running, they only have about 40,000 taps in the trees. They still have about 50,000 taps to go.

“We’ve learned that it’s OK and it’s all about quality control,” Branon said.

He says vacuum technology, modern taps and better hole-drilling allow cleaner, more sealed-off holes, less leaking and less bacteria finding its way into taps. It’s the bacteria they want to keep away; it dries up the hole and ends that tap’s production. As long as the lines and holes are sealed off, according to Branon, these early runs don’t impact the crop come spring. But this sap is different.

“This early season sap is going to be a lesser sugar content, so it’s going to take more time boiling it,” Branon explained.

Branon estimates this sap is over 99% water. So to make 1 gallon of syrup, it will take roughly 86 gallons of sap. He says a normal run is 98% water and only takes about 43 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup.

“It’s probably going to be a lighter color and a lighter maple taste,” he said.

When this sap boils down and we drop back into more seasonable temperatures, what happens to the trees?

“This won’t make a big difference as far as the trees’ health,” said Mark Isselhardt of the Proctor Maple Research Center.

Experts at the Proctor Maple Research Center say the trees are just responding to their warmer environment. The biggest threat now is sustained higher temperatures which could encourage bacteria growth in the tap holes.

But sap running now doesn’t impact yields later this year.

“It’s not like there is a finite amount of sap in the tree at any one moment for the whole season, it’s this pumping action,” Isselhardt said.

Isselhardt says yields will depend on spring temperatures and keeping the tap hole sanitized through the rest of the winter, so the sap still flows come February, something the Branons are looking forward to.

“As the season progresses, we will get right back to that stronger flavor and it will turn to a great season,” Branon said.