High pressure had drifted over central Vermont, and with it temperatures had climbed steadily from the teens overnight up past freezing and into the 40s. David “Tig” Tillinghast, had driven out that mid-April morning and checked the sugar bush in Strafford–212 acres of leased land, 1,050 taps–and found the sap running like crazy. The season was winding down, but there would be at least one more good run.
It’s a 45-minute round trip to what Tig calls “the Baker bush” from his own trees and sugarhouse in Thetford Center, Vermont.
I join him in his pickup for the second ride of the day, with a 425-gallon collecting tank in the bed behind us. We drop down off Hubbard Hill, passing the brick farmhouse where the late Noel Perrin lived, where Tig boiled sap for the first time as a student of Perrin’s at Dartmouth in the early 1990s. “It was actually a writing class,” Tig says. “Ned introduced us to sugar making so we could get away from campus and meet some real people and get our hands dirty, and have something to write about.”
He turns the pickup north on Route 113, then west on Sawnee Bean Road, pointing out open pasture protected by conservation easements, mentioning family histories. New to Vermont, he talks about making sugar and fitting in. “I’m from this kind of town in a different place,” he says, referring to Danielson, the mill town in northeastern Connecticut where he grew up. “I just happen to be a swamp Yankee with an education.”
Tig sees sugaring as a tool for protecting land, a way to get involved in the local culture, and a way to live amidst an extraordinarily productive maple forest that has been nurtured and tended for generations for this one purpose. With virtually no background, Tig moved here in 2006 and soaked up everything he could find on the science of syrup making, consulted with experts throughout the Northeast, and, especially, talked with the sugar makers around Thetford. He was sensitive to the culture he was entering, and–crucially–he liked and respected it. He got to know his neighbors. He volunteered on the town’s budget committee and agreed to serve as selectman. His wife, Elise, joined the local library board.
And Tig asked questions. He found that all the small stores in the area had longstanding relationships with local sugar makers, and he didn’t try to steal their business. He went to Shaw’s over in Randolph–the largest supermarket in Orange County–and the manager said, “Nobody’s ever asked us before.” Tig sold 50 liters of syrup to him on the spot and started a relationship. He sold none of his syrup locally, unless someone nearby was running low on a certain grade and Tig could help him out. He traded his C-grade batches to the Bascoms’ big commercial operation in New Hampshire, in return for smaller amounts of their grade A dark amber.
He discovered the microeconomies and markets that affected the price of maple syrup and felt comfortable moving among them. He bottled most of his syrup in old-fashioned, square, flask-topped liter bottles, put gourmet-style labels on them (2009: The High Flavor Reserve), and marketed his product to high-end cafes and restaurants, most of them west of New England. He advertised Tillinghast Maple Syrup as a corporate gift, complete with customized labeling.
The recent depletion of Canadian syrup reserves and a burgeoning global demand had driven the price of syrup above $40 and even $50 a gallon wholesale, but in certain markets Tig could get three or four times that for Tillinghast syrup in a fancy bottle. And when he sold out his own supply, he sold his neighbors’ syrup and passed along the profit to them.
He took their advice along with their good-natured, sometimes skeptical, ribbing. He liked the camaraderie and the teamwork and the long shared hours when a boil was on. He paid a couple of young guys, “Bone” Thurston and “Bumpa” Carolan, to help him get his stove wood in and lay out his sap lines. They helped with the boiling for free, talked hunting and local gossip, and their mom cooked for the crew, besides.
Tig kept detailed notes and data on his computer, adding to the longer-term, handwritten records he’d inherited from Chas Baker, and shared everything he learned: stuff he was reading, results from his own experiments, marketing ideas. He shared in person and on his Web site, FreshMapleSyrup.com. (His blog is filled with history, research, and humor. In one post, he replied to a questioner: “The correct terminology for filter press, by the way, is ‘damned filter press,’ but ‘filter press’ will do as an abbreviation.”)
Tig’s 2009 total would come in at 520 gallons–a tiny fraction of Vermont’s 920,000 gallons, the state’s biggest crop in 60 years–but that was double what he’d made the previous year. He was planning to hit a thousand gallons in 2010. Part of that increase would come with additional taps; he purchased the Strafford land in December and doubled the number there. Part of it, Tig expected, would also come with the increased yields promised by the revolutionary new “check-valve” spouts unveiled over the summer at the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center. “I think their 50- to 90-percent increases might be overstated,” he says, back in the truck, glancing out at maple trees that have been part of a working landscape here for generations. And then he adds, in what could stand in for a metaphor of Tig’s part-past/part-future approach to the craft, “Their testing was done on a model, almost unnatural, forest. I’ll put a couple thousand of the new taps out, but segregate the results, compare them to history, see how other people do around here, and find out how the taps work in the real world.”
This year’s Vermont Maple Open House Weekend is set for March 26-28 at locations all across the state (vermontmaple.org). The annual Vermont Maple Festival is scheduled for April 30 through May 2 in St. Albans (vtmaplefestival.org).