Maple syrup-makers strike gold

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March 11th, 2009

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FAIRFIELD, Vt. — The spring sun is shining and billows of steam are rising from the chimneys at Tom and Cecile Branon’s sugarhouse, set on a rise above acres of maple trees. The scent of maple syrup is strong enough to make your mouth water.

The price is high enough to bring tears to your eyes.

Sugaring season in Vermont is going full blast, and the price of the amber syrup that turns pancakes from batter to best is at a record high because of limited supplies. That has put Vermont’s 2,000 or so sugar-makers on the right side of the supply-and-demand equation.

“It’s just a good time to make maple,” says Tom Branon, who hopes to produce 30,000 gallons this year. “Every backyard sugar-maker who can is doing it.”

Buying less this year

But this year, customers pinched by the recession are buying smaller quantities, sugar-makers say.

In 2007, a gallon of Vermont maple syrup cost an average of $35, according to Department of Agriculture statistics. This year, the price is $45 a gallon at Branon Family Maple Farms — and that’s the low end.

The Vermont Maple Outlet in Jeffersonville sells gallons for $76.95. F.H. Gillingham’s, a store in Woodstock that also sells online, charges $80 a gallon — up from $60 last year.

Canada’s huge supply of surplus syrup has been drained after production dropped 30% below average last year, the second poor year in a row.

“It was very cold, and suddenly, too warm. Spring didn’t occur,” says Simon Trepanier of the Federation of Quebec Maple Producers.

The result: “There’s just not a lot of syrup out there,” says Bernie Comeau, who runs Comeau Family Sugarhouse with his wife, Ann, in Williston.

Demand for syrup has been sweetened by consumer interest in natural and organic products and in buying locally-made food, says Catherine Stevens of the Vermont Maple Foundation. The popularity of the Master Cleanse diet — a fasting regimen popularized by the singer Beyoncé that includes drinking water flavored with maple syrup — doesn’t hurt.

Sugar-makers, sensitive to the appearance of gouging, point out that syrup-making requires tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment such as stainless-steel evaporators and a “reverse osmosis” device that shortens boiling time. Last winter’s high oil prices drove up the cost of plastic tubing used to carry sap from taps on the trees to the sugarhouse.

“Now sugar-makers who love what they’re doing are actually making some money doing it and not just breaking even,” says Jim MacIsaac, founder of Highland Sugarworks, which packages 170,000 gallons of syrup for retailers. “People who are running some sophisticated operations are finally justifying their investments.”

Their good fortune comes just in time for a recession.

“This year I’ve sold a lot more quarts” than gallons, says Mike Isham, who runs his family’s sugarhouse down the road from Comeau. “People are cutting back.”

Expensive ingredient

At Dakin Farm, a syrup bottler and gourmet food store in Ferrisburgh, syrup sales fell 20% last year when prices jumped, says founder Sam Cutting. “The price is probably going to sneak up a little more this year.”

For Vermont restaurants, maple syrup is the most expensive ingredient they buy. In some spots, syrup pitchers are quietly disappearing.

“We used to have it out on the table all day, every day,” says July Sanders, an owner of Magnolia Bistro in downtown Burlington, Vt.

Late last year, the restaurant began putting out syrup only at breakfast. If midday customers want some maple syrup in their coffee, they have to ask.

At Alex’s Restaurant in South Burlington, chef-owner Alex Marko has switched from 12-ounce syrup pitchers to 2-ounce containers.

“I’ve seen a kid pour 10 bucks worth of syrup on a dollar pancake,” he says.

Not that restaurants in Vermont plan to switch to corn-syrup substitutes.

“This is a breakfast place, and we’re in Vermont. I wouldn’t dream of not serving it,” Sanders says. “If we did stop serving it, there would be a riot.”

Even the IHOP pancake restaurant in Burlington has gotten special permission from the company’s headquarters to serve the real thing in addition to IHOP’s own brand of flavored toppings made from corn syrup. But it’ll cost you: 99 cents for an ounce-and-a-half packet, the equivalent of $84 a gallon.

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