Cold spring leaves sour taste for maple producers

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By Joe Moskowitz
Most people who live in the northeast have a pretty good idea how maple syrup is traditionally made. Sugar maple trees are tapped, their sap flows on warm days, it is collected and then reduced by boiling to the point where the result is syrup. Maple sap become maple syrup when it reaches a boiling point of 7.1 degrees Fahrenheit over the boiling point of water. 
But there are those who do things a little differently.
Jody Condon and Adam John­son own Millbrook Maple. For them, making maple syrup is not just something traditional to do during the spring “mud season.” They, and others, are also make money at it.
They tap sugar maple trees, hundreds of them, and have created a network of miles of plastic pipe that carry sap from their trees to gathering tanks.

In synch
In order for sap to run, there needs to be a combination of freezing nights and thawing days. When the temperature is just right, sap flows out of trees with a pressure of between 12 and 19 pounds per square inch. Conditions aren’t always ideal, so Condon said they “fool nature” by using a vacuum pump on their lines. On slow-running days, Condon said they can get about four times as much sap as someone depending on gravity and nature.
Toby Hubbell keeps an eye on the maple syrup making process at the family homestead in Kelly Corners. Like all producers in the area, the Hubbells have been frustrated by the lingering cold weather this year. — Photos by Dick SanfordToby Hubbell keeps an eye on the maple syrup making process at the family homestead in Kelly Corners. Like all producers in the area, the Hubbells have been frustrated by the lingering cold weather this year. — Photos by Dick Sanford
Time, energy savings
Once their sap is gathered, it is run through a reverse osmosis machine (RO), which is basically a sophisticated water filter. The RO is designed to make water fit for drinking by blocking all molecules that are larger than water molecules. For a maple producer, water becomes the by-product and they are left with highly concentrated sap.
RO machines remove about 75 percent of the water in sap. Condon said that reduces the amount of fuel oil needed to boil sap into syrup from three to four gallons down to as little as half a gallon.
Not all maple trees are made the same or at least they don’t grow that way. Condon gets most of his sap from trees in the forest. They have smaller “crowns,” in other words fewer leaves than a tree you may have in your yard, so their sugar content is much lower. It usually takes him about 60 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Sap from big crown trees in most years require about 40 gallons to make a gallon of syrup.
Millbrook Maple’s marketing is also not traditional. Much of it is sold over the Internet to customers in New York City and in California.
When asked if syrup made using fuel oil as a heat source tastes any different from the wood fired syrup, Condon said syrup from all producers has a distinctive taste all to its own.
The sap house at the Hubbell Homestead in Kelly Corners has seen many generations of maple syrup makers.The sap house at the Hubbell Homestead in Kelly Corners has seen many generations of maple syrup makers.
A tough year
Whatever the method, all of the area maple producers have had a tough year. The season got off to a late start because of the weather and now looks to be about over. The season ends when the maples bud and their sap turns milky. Last year Millbrook Maple produced more than 500 gallons of syrup and they were hoping to increase that output this year. Given the conditions, Condon said he now hopes to produce about 400 gallons this year.
He and Johnson are considering expanding their syrup making to include Birch syrup. Birch syrup requires boiling more than100 gallons of sap to get one gallon of syrup. But the financial reward is there. A customer in California and one in Ne York City are willing to pay more than $200 for a gallon of birch syrup, almost four times what a gallon of maple syrup sells for.
Condon said they will be working with Cornell University over the next few years to try and determine if money can be made making birch syrup on a large scale.