On Tap in Vermont, Maple Sap

Vermont has 2.8 million taps on 1,310 farms producing 645,000 gallons of syrup, by far the highest volume of any state, according to the USDA's 2007 census. The state has made a name for its maple syrup by protecting the geographic origins with rules governing the "Vermont maple" label.

The state's "maple cop," Henry Marckres, told me that the laws were initially designed to prevent manufacturers from making "Vermont maple syrup" on the backstreets of Chicago. In recent years, the rules have expanded to ensure that any product--wines, candies, syrups--labeled with the Vermont name actually originated in the Green Mountain state. (After all, Canadian manufacturers now make up an estimated 85 percent of world market. Making matters worse, some experts speculate that global warming could cause the annual flow of sap to move further northward or end the seasonal harvest of sugar maples entirely.)

While much of the sap is boiled down into syrup, drinking fermented beverages made with maple sap appears to predate the Puritans. In recent decades, syrup has also been distilled into vodkas and added to beers and liqueur. Another drink, a carbonated maple sap from Poultney, Vermont, seems to hearken back to the sugaring's frugal New England roots. It's called Vermont Sweetwater.

Recommended Reading

Rich Munch and his brother Bob grew up on a Vermont dairy farm, tapping maple sugar trees in the early spring and drinking the ice-cold sap straight from the tap. The two stopped dairying in 1978, and began repairing cars and attempting to invent better collision-repair tools.

"We always came up with ideas to make things easier," Rich told me. "Nothing ever really took off."

Then, Bob came up with another idea altogether: bottling maple sap. Rich liked the idea, although he thought it would have a broader appeal if the bottled sap were carbonated. In 1993, the brothers took out a patent and began bottling bubbly sap, making and selling about 10,000 cases a year.

The Vermont Sweetwater Bottling Company produces eight sodas altogether, including the maple seltzer and a maple soda sweetened with syrup. Their distinctive maple seltzer tastes almost exactly like fresh sap extracted from sugar maple trees, only with the added sensation of lightly carbonated mineral water. It tastes as clear as it looks, with no smoky tones or the cloying, mouth-coating feel of high-fructose corn syrup. And compared with maple syrup -- a concentrate made from 40 times as much maple sap -- the sweetness is barely perceptible (a 2-8% solution of dissolved sugar; whereas, standard maple syrup and simple syrups found at many coffee shops are around 66% sugar) and much more thirst-quenching.

In the forthcoming book, Goat Song, Brad Kessler writes, "It was carbonated, nonalcoholic. Cold and parsimonious-but also: delicious. I drank the bottle in one go."