March 17, 2011
The New York Times
Living With the Sweet Smell of Sap
By CAITLIN KELLY
WHEN most people think of maple syrup, they think of Vermont or Canada. Yet New York State has plenty of sugarbushes and producers, and they are eager to introduce their crop to those who think that all brown syrup in a plastic jug is the real thing.
“Most people have never experienced pure maple,” said Dennis Hill, who has been tapping trees since he was a boy to capture the sap that becomes maple syrup.
Maple is one of the most natural and unadulterated liquids, even after processing, that you can buy. The clear, light-green sap is piped directly from the tree into a huge steel vat, then boiled down for long hours. This classic production process may conjure up rustic visions of burly guys in plaid shirts hauling metal buckets through the woods, pouring hot syrup into battered metal pans laid atop the snow, steaming sweetly in the winter air.
Hardly. While some makers still use buckets and do much of their work by hand, serious maple syrup producers long ago switched to a system of blue and black plastic tubing that makes their woods — known as sugarbushes — look more like outdoor laboratories.
Visitors interested in how maple products are made — and how they taste — are in luck. This Saturday and Sunday and March 26 to 27, more than 100 producers in upstate New York — a few in Putnam and Dutchess counties, most in Delaware County — are opening their doors for the annual celebration known as Maple Weekend. The festivities will include demonstrations, tours and even pancake breakfasts. Mr. Hill’s Catskills farm here, Shaver-Hill Farm — which he runs with his two sons — expects to serve 700 to 1,000 hungry guests each weekend.
“We encourage people to try visiting different makers,” said Dwayne Hill, 48, one of Dennis’s sons. “Everyone does it differently, and there are all sorts of ways to make it. There’s no right way or wrong way.”
At Shaver-Hill Farm the process begins with 6,000 feet of line stretched at chest height, transporting sap to the high-technology machines that will transform it into sugar, maple cream and syrup. Every year the Hills tap their trees once daily temperature shifts produce the necessary combination of freezing cold nights and warmer days that make the sap flow freely. Using a peg called a spile, they pierce the bark, attach the tubing, and a central vacuum pump ensures a smooth, steady flow of sap.
The journey from tree trunk to bottle? About 12 hours.
A mini-waterfall produced by the combined flow of 800 trees starts the process. Once the sap is collected, it’s run through an evaporator, which can process 750 gallons of sap per hour, removing almost all the water, which boosts sugar content from 2.6 percent to about 68 percent. A reverse osmosis machine speeds the process.
The Hills work with the sap only three months of the year. They spend the other nine months on what they say is a more difficult task — marketing their wares to Americans who have never even tasted maple syrup. Many consumers buy syrup that doesn’t contain maple, and have no idea that they’re missing maple’s distinctive and subtle flavor. It works well in a variety of foods, Dwayne said, adding, “It’s very good on vanilla ice cream, baked beans, sweet potatoes, for glazing ham.”
The men of Shaver-Hill Farm weren’t always so focused on maple, but seven years ago they began specializing, selling off their herd of Holstein dairy cows and selling syrup, sugar and other wares directly to consumers.
“This job is definitely sweeter smelling,” said Dwayne’s brother, David, 47.
Though the 99-year-old property is a family business, the definition of family can be expansive. Paul Murphy has long considered the farm his second home. He was a 7-year-old from Manhattan when, with the help of the Fresh Air Fund, he began spending summers with the Hill family.
“It was like paradise,” Mr. Murphy, now 47 and a graphic designer for New York City Transit, recalls. He returned for 11 summers. “I always cried when I left.” In his teens Mr. Murphy went up to the farm in winter to help with sapping and fondly remembers the old days when a huge cast-iron stove could be found in the former sap house and he fed the red-hot maw with logs to keep the liquid boiling.
This year’s tough winter will probably boost sap production, a happy change from 2010, which the Hills said was the worst season they had experienced, producing only 700 gallons instead of the usual 2,500. With a cordless drill they started tapping this year on Feb. 23. Each sugarbush has 100 trees and 1,500 taps; Shaver-Hill has three sugarbushes. (The largest producers, in Quebec and Vermont, have 30,000 to 80,000 taps.)
Forest creatures like deer, squirrels and coyotes love to gnaw on the tubes and suck out the sap, making daily checks of the lines a necessity.
Those interested in making their own syrup can buy the necessary equipment at the farm. However artisanally tempting, you shouldn’t try this on your kitchen stove, the Hills warn. It takes 35 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup, the rest evaporating into huge clouds of wall-ruining condensation.
Once acquired, the taste for maple runs deep. The Hill family ships products all over the world, from Iran and Qatar to Sweden, Turkey and Australia. A scientist working in Antarctica even received a maple sugar care package — air-dropped onto the ice — sent by his mom.
Mr. Murphy, who’ll be up at Shaver-Hill to celebrate the Maple Weekends with his rural brothers, now adds maple syrup to everything from his morning coffee to his Thanksgiving cranberry sauce.
At roughly $10 a pint “it is very expensive,” he conceded. “But it’s worth it.”