Despite Unusual Temperatures, Maple Producers Start Season
The Recorder, March 3, 2017, by Shelby Ashline
Franklin County residents driving through the countryside can spot rustic wooden sugarhouses big and small with steam billowing from their roof vents, a sign that spring is on its way.
Unseasonably warm weather in western Massachusetts has led many local sugar makers to start tapping trees and boiling syrup early this year. For Kleeberg’s Sugar House in Greenfield, tapping began about two weeks earlier than last year.
“We saw the weather and decided to start tapping,” said Brian Kleeberg, owner and founder of Kleeberg’s Sugar House. “It gets warmer earlier, so we just tap earlier, boil earlier.”
Some local sugar makers are curious to see what the unusual weather will mean for business.
“As far as sugaring goes, it’s not ideal,” Kenneth “Chip” Williams IV of Williams Farm Sugarhouse in Deerfield said of the warm weather. “But it might be early enough in the season it won’t affect things.”
Ideal weather for sap production, Williams said, is cold nights in the 20s and warm days in the 40s. Low-pressure systems that produce snow and rain, he added, also lead the trees to produce more sap.
“The weather has been inconsistent, which always makes it challenging to keep up, but it certainly doesn’t mean anything bad for the season,” said Winton Pitcoff, coordinator for the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association. “We don’t know how the season’s going to be until it ends … I’ve heard quite a few people say they’re doing really well.”
Pitcoff hopes the weather will return to a cycle of freezes, with a more gradual warm-up, though he said the warm spell in late February has meant “some really good runs,” producing a lot of sap in the past several days.
John Hannum, co-owner of J&J Maple in Whately, said the warm weather has produced milky sap, which creates darker grades of syrup.
“Mother nature changes it all the time,” Hannum said of the sugar making industry. “I think that’s what’s so interesting about it.”
Pitcoff said that while there is a conception that darker grades of syrup are less valuable, “there’s been a significant growth in the dark syrup market.”
“A lot of people ask for that,” Pitcoff added, though he said lighter syrup is better for making maple candy and cream.
Still, for the love of maple, local sugar makers like Williams are excited to start the season.
“It was always my favorite season,” Williams said of helping his father Kenneth “Sandy” Williams III as a child, and as he still does today. “After a long, cold winter, when the days start getting warmer and longer, it’s nice to get outside. It’s a sure sign that spring is coming.”
“Any year we can be here doing this is a good year,” Williams added as he watched steam billow from the evaporator.
From sap to syrup
Though weather conditions make the sugar business a little different every year, the process of turning sap to syrup is largely uniform.
Some producers collect sap using the old-fashioned method of metal buckets, while others use a tubing system to connect the tree taps to a holding tank. In the case of J&J Maple, Hannum and co-owner Josh Witherall have a vacuum system that draws sap down the tubes, allowing them to collect 300 gallons of sap per hour.
Back at the sugar shack, Hannum and Witherall keep the sap in a holding tank underneath ultraviolet lights, which Hannum said helps to kill bacteria.
Then, the sap goes through a reverse osmosis machine, through which a semi-permeable membrane separates water and sugar molecules.
“It concentrates it into super sap, if you will,” Hannum said.
Sap that is 2 percent sugar will be 12 percent sugar by the time is comes out of the reverse osmosis machine, Hannum said. At Kleeberg’s Sugar House, Kleeberg said he runs the sap through twice to create an even higher sugar content.
Next, the sap is boiled in the evaporator until it reaches 219 degrees, Hannum said, thickening the sap into syrup. Depending on the sugar content of the sap, it generally takes 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup.
A filter press helps to remove “sugar sand” from the syrup. Pitcoff explained sugar sand is an impurity that comes from minerals that get picked up by the tree from the soil.
The finished syrup is then reheated to be stored in sealed metal drums and await packaging.
Want to see it made?
While less common in other parts of Massachusetts, the syrup production industry in Franklin County is alive and well, with 46 sugarhouses listed on the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association’s website that are open to the public. Visit www.massmaple.org for a directory of sugarhouses.
You can reach Shelby Ashline at email@example.com
413-772-0261 ext. 257