December 08, 2021 3 Comments
Touting the provenance of fine foods and wines is a well-established marketing practice, especially when the origin of the products offers the areas’ producers an advantage due to a shared halo of quality. The terroir of a certain region that allows those winemakers to charge a premium for their wines. A longer-aged, single-barreled bottle of whisky that’s worth exponentially more than those made in the regular course of business. A method of making, and style of, cheese that can only be sourced from one place.
We all know the names – in wine you have Bordeaux, Napa, Rioja, and Douro. In cheese you have Roquefort, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Feta, and Wisconsin Cheddar. Jamon Iberico. Kobe Beef. Balsamic Vinegar. The list of geographic-specific foods we love is endless.
When we moved to Vermont, I wondered if we could carve out a competitive place for our maple syrup via provenance as well. To be clear, I already understood that Vermont maple syrup commanded a premium versus maple syrups from other states. Vermont is to maple syrup as Champagne is to sparkling wine. There are other elements of provenance beyond location, including how it is made, so we make sure people know that our maple syrup is wood fired and made in small batches. We also pursued Organic Certification from Vermont Organic Farmers and received that last spring. And we have just been certified by the Audubon Society as being a Bird Friendly Sugarwoods.
And after doing a bit of research, I also discovered that there were already a few Maple Syrup producers marketing maple syrup as being single-sourced from a specific sugarwoods. I thought this was an interesting angle.
The bigger competitors aren’t typically able to do this because they are buying sap or syrup from multiple producers or locations and then blending it to achieve the most consistent product possible. There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact it is basically a necessity that comes with the scale that comes with success.
At the end of this maple syrup "positioning exercise," I wondered if we could get even more granular? Could we make and market a maple syrup from a single tree?
So, I started to explore this as a possibility. Short answer, everyone told me “It’s impossible.”
I rarely take the no as the first answer, so I dug deeper and asked why it would be impossible? The immediate answer was that sap begins to ferment (because of its sugar content) when it sits around – that’s why when the sap runs in Vermont, you see the steam in the air from everyone boiling at once. You can’t let sap “age” or it transforms into something that is not particularly desirable.
Separately, in the information gathering part of my maple syrup education, I discovered that folks (UVM Extension) were exploring whether cold storage of sap would allow you to bring more efficiency to your boiling operation. Could you do fewer boils, using less fuel (wood in our case), if you let the sap accumulate for a few days. Cold storage (milk chillers are what they were experimenting with) would stall the fermentation process for a bit and allow you to boil more sap less often. I thought if cooling it would slow it down, would freezing it stop it all together? A bit more research, and I found that backyard producers would often do this – freezing the sap gathered until they had enough sap to do a boil.
It seemed a single-tree syrup was not impossible; it was just impractical!
So, we decided we would prove to ourselves that we could do it. We hand-picked and bucket-tapped two of our more statuesque maple trees. Trees that were too far from our main sugar woods to be on our tubing and vacuum system. One of these maples we dedicated to our first dog Addy. And the second maple to our dog Buddy (I’ll expand on this later).
When the sap started running this past spring, we spent the better part of each day processing and boiling the sap from our main sugar woods, and then at the end of the day, we would gather our single-tree sap and put into plastic buckets that could be frozen in a large chest freezer in our barn. Over time we realized that the Addy maple, as majestic and as old as it was (we estimate over 200 years based on its circumference), was well beyond its peak sap producing years. So, we turned our focus solely on gathering and freezing the sap from the Buddy tree.
By the end of the season, we ended up with about 35 gallons of sap from Buddy’s tree, which we boiled just weeks ago.
Being frozen for many months did not change the composition of the sap – and we were able to boil and make maple syrup about 6 months after what was likely the last commercial boil in Vermont. We ended up with a half-gallon of pure, organic Vermont maple syrup. From one tree. And it tastes amazing. If you ever get the chance to try this syrup, you’ll be getting syrup where you’ll not only know exactly where it was produced, you’ll know the very tree from which it originated.
As for the Buddy name, and why is there more of a story here? Buddy was the name of one of our Goldens (Buddy's photo is featured in this post). A rescue. He was huge for a golden retriever, and an amazing dog. It was only befitting that this grand, majestic, and very productive tree be named after him. But there was a catch. In the maple syrup world, “buddy” syrup is a bad thing. At the end of the sugaring season, when the maple trees start to bud, the nature of the sap changes. And the syrup from that time of year has an off taste. A “buddy” taste. So, naming your syrup after Buddy would normally be a huge marketing faux pas. Sort of like when Chevrolet tried to sell the “No va” in Spanish speaking countries. When I shared our plan, including the name of the "Buddy" tree with a resource at UVM’s extension office, he told me “Good luck marketing “Buddy” syrup," but to be clear, I felt no need for his offer of good luck and definitely no need to worry.
Instead, I just smiled inside.
Why? First, we had no intention of targeting other maple syrup producers. There is a relatively small number of people who would actually understand the negative definition of buddy syrup, none of whom we would be targeting to sell our syrup. Second, if we were going to market a single tree maple syrup, the story behind how that syrup is made would be a huge part of the reason why someone would want to buy it. So, before a consumer would ever choose to invest a single dollar in Buddy syrup, there would be no confusion for them as to whether it was named after our dog or a producer's obscure definition of the quality of late season syrup.
Before I draw this blog post to a close, let’s harken back to the impractical nature of producing a single-tree sourced bottle of syrup. It truly is impractical. We (Maple Mike and I) invested many, many hours in gathering, freezing, boiling and and reducing tens of gallons of sap to a half-gallon bottle of Maple Syrup. From when we first started collecting and freezing the sap to the day(s) we started to boil, we calculated the cost of that syrup, valuing our time using something akin to Bernie Sander’s vision of a living wage, and the value of this single half gallon of syrup quickly adds up to more than a couple of thousand dollars. So yes, possible and definitely delicious, but also undeniably impractical as a scale commercial endeavor.
So it's not a scale endeavor. If you’d like to honor one of your pups and memorialize them with a maple tree in the Golden Dog Farm Sugarwoods, it is possible and affordable. If you’d like to go a step farther and have a bottle of single-tree syrup from a tree dedicated to the memory of your pup, that’s possible too. Some will see it as impractical, but we'll make it possible. In fact, we’re committed to offering single-tree syrup opportunities to up to five dog loving families in the spring of 2022.
That's right, we’ll invite you to join us on Golden Dog Farm to make your very own bottle of single-tree sourced maple syrup; boiled down from the sap harvested from your pet’s dedicated tree. What a sweet way to not only commemorate your pet, but to learn about and experience sugar making first-hand with your family.
Dewey, Uncle Lenny, Boo and Mar would all be excited to have you join us!
October 17, 2021 26 Comments
Our friends and family wonder how, and why, we so dramatically changed the course of our lives. Leaving the comfort, support and familiarity of friends and family in Cincinnati to end up on a farm in rural Vermont (to call it rural Vermont is admittedly a bit redundant) where we basically knew no one.
Well, it's complicated.