MIDDLEBURY — In the early 20th century, no resource was left unused on a Vermont farm. The very end of a year’s sap run, when the maple flavor is the strongest, was no different. That sap was boiled down halfway, then tossed into a barrel with other ingredients to make sap beer.
“I doubt if there’s a barrel of sap beer in the state today, but I must say, it was a pretty good drink for haying,” said Edgar Dodge on a Vermont Folklife Center recording from the 1990s. (Hear Edgar Dodge's interview below)
Dodge was a Tunbridge farmer who went on to become the Chief Executive Officer at Cooperative Insurance in Middlebury. He died in 1997, at the age of 84, but his memory of sap beer lives on at the Vermont Folklife Center. The organization this summer will unveil a modern-day sap beer brewed by Fiddlehead Brewery in Shelburne.
The idea for Frog Run Sap Beer, billed as “a contemporary sap beer with roots in Vermont’s traditional sugarmaking and brewing cultures,” has been a long time in the works. Greg Sharrow, Folklife Center director of education, said each sugaring season for years he and archivist Andy Kolovos tossed around the idea of recreating sap beer.
Sharrow said the clip comes from one of his trips around the state in the 1990s, documenting stories of farm life. It was a project he started as a part of his dissertation and that continued once he arrived at the Vermont Folklife Center.
“I never set out to talk about food,” he said. “But inevitably people would talk about it.”
Sharrow gathered clips of people speaking about a time in the early 20th century when most things were produced at home — hard cider, salt pork, butter, maple syrup, meat, and of course, sap beer.
“It was an era of incredible frugality,” he said. “You’d hear, ‘We lived less on income than from lack of expense.’”
But Sharrow said the sap beer description from Edgar Dodge stood out because the practice was so rare.
Earlier this year, Kolovos stopped in at the brand new Fiddlehead Brewery and, on a whim, mentioned sap beer to brewer Matt Cohen. Cohen said he was interested almost immediately, and the two began discussing a recipe.
“There’s very sketchy information on (sap beer),” said Kolovos. “There was no one set formula.”
Dodge’s recipe involved using very late season sap — “down to where you can kind of taste the leaves in it” — instead of water as the base of the beer, then adding in whatever ingredients were on hand.
“It was not only permissible, it was common to put in everything you’d think might add something to it. Perhaps 10 quarts of corn, plus you’d put in the hops and the raisins and let it work.”
The beer, said Dodge, was ready for drinking when haying started, usually on the Fourth of July. But the results weren’t always predictable.
“Sap beer was very peculiar stuff,” he said. “The same people would make sap beer to the best of their ability and sometimes it would turn out junk. Nobody could drink it ... or you could have sap beer that was just as clear as any ale you ever saw, and I don’t think the man ever lived that could drink two eight-ounce glasses and walk 10 minutes later.”
Kolovos isn’t sure quite how the beer is going to taste, but he said he’ll be waiting until the beer is unveiled this summer to find out.
“I’m happy to be surprised like everyone else,” he said.
The sap beer’s grand unveiling will occur at a small fundraiser event at Fiddlehead on May 31, featuring New York Times Magazine columnist Rosie Schaap. Frog Run will be on tap at the event, along with a sap beer from Sean Lawson of Lawson’s Finest Liquids in Warren.
The day-long public unveiling is scheduled for July 7 at the brewery, complete with beer, pizza and fiddle music. Among the musicians lined up to play are Erik and Erica Andrus of Ferrisburgh and Rose Diamond with Pete Sutherland of Monkton..
Andrea Suozzo is at firstname.lastname@example.org.