March 31, 2013

Sweet syrup season shaping up


WEST CHAZY — Surging sap is making spring a sweet, syrupy success.

Dick Atwood of Atwood Maple Products in West Chazy said prime conditions have led to an excellent maple-syrup season so far. Atwood said his first boil of the season was Feb. 28, which is fairly typical for the last 10 years.

The season ended abruptly last year due to consistent high temperatures early in the season. This year, the combination of below-freezing nights and about 40 degree days has been almost optimal for sap flow.

Atwood said his father always said that combination of temperatures, high-pressure in the atmosphere and a northwest wind was best.

Snow cover helps

The short-range forecast looks good, he said, and the snow cover is helping keep the tree roots cold, which also helps. He thinks the season could extend into April unless there is a sudden warm spell.

”Last year I was done by this time (March 27),” Atwood said. “I should surpass last year’s production today.”

At age 67, he said he’s been involved in the maple-syrup trade his entire life. He is the fifth-generation of maple producers in the West Chazy area, as his great-great grandfather had a sugar shack on the property at 161 Atwood Road.

He presently has about 4,800 taps. Atwood said 3,700 of those send sap through vacuum lines to the sugar house, while the rest are collected from two other sugarbushes and carried for production.

Atwood changes the drop lines from the tap to the transport lines every three years to prevent bacteria from building up and making its way back into the trees.

”Sap is the life-blood of the tree. It comes out through the tap, like a wound,” he said.

One of the few who still use a wood-fired evaporator, Atwood uses a six-foot by 16-foot unit manufactured by Leader Evaporator of St. Albans, Vt. He goes through about 20 cords of three-foot firewood a year. 

During Maple Weekend activities last weekend, one woman came up to him  to shake his hand, he said.

“She said, ‘I’m glad to see someone still burning wood,’” Atwood said.

Started with buckets

He grew up making syrup the old-fashioned way, collecting from buckets hanging from the trees and hauling to the sugarhouse by horses.

“I don’t mind building these fires. If I had a huge operation, I would have to use oil,” he said, adding that would dramatically increase his costs.

Atwood has to stoke the fire every 15 to 20 minutes. He also has to constantly monitor temperatures during the evaporation process.

Each stoking generates enough heat for about three pails of syrup.

The sap flows into a vacuum release tank that automatically empties when its about two-thirds full. The sap is then filtered three times, then passed through a reverse osmosis machine, which increases the sugar content from about 2 percent to 3.5 to 4 percent. That helps reduce the boiling time needed to make syrup.

It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, he said.

As the sap flows through the evaporator above the fire, water is removed until it is converted to syrup, which is about 66 percent sugar content. As the water is drawn off, the remaining molecules cling together and get thicker.

“That’s how it becomes syrup,” Atwood said, adding that it’s very similar to the way molasses is manufactured.

The excess water comes out about 195 degrees. Atwood reuses it to wash filters and rinse some of the utensils.

The syrup is passed though a filter press, multiple plates lined with damp sheets of filter paper and bolted together, and then into drums to await packaging.

Color gets darker

The longer the sap is boiled, the darker it becomes. He said light amber syrup has a delicate flavor, while the darker variety has a more intense maple flavor.

Atwood said he prefers the light-amber grade, but everyone has their own preference.

The seasonal business is something that just gets into your blood, Atwood said. Late winter/early spring is a nice time to be in the woods, he said.

“Anyone who makes syrup is a sap,” Atwood said with a laugh.

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