Master of the Maple Syrup Universe

Master of the Maple Syrup Universe

Most people associate maple syrup with Canada, which makes sense — it's the world’s largest producer. Or maybe Vermont, whose brand of premium syrup is often faked. That might change, if one financier-turned-syrup maker has his way.

There are more tappable maple trees in New York State than anywhere else in the world. One operation, Crown Maple Syrup, produced at Madava Farms in Dutchess County, New York, is looking to maximize the market with the most technologically-advanced and largest sugar house in the world — a building that has the capacity to produce twice as much syrup as the largest producer in Canada.

The man behind this operation, Robb Turner, isn’t shy about his ambitions. After buying his family a vacation home in the Hudson Valley in 2006,  he fell in love with the 800-acre property’s wide range of geography, trout streams, forests and fields, and the amazing view at the top of the mountain. He soon discovered the abundance of maple trees as well — about 25,000.

For about a year and a half, the co-founder and managing partner of a private equities firm in New York City canvassed North America looking at maple syrup technology.  When he began talking to local neighbors and friends about maple tree tapping, he knew he had to use the most technologically-advanced processes to create his organic maple syrup. Eventually, Turner commissioned the world’s largest reverse-osmosis machine to maximize his maple output in addition to working closely with Mike Farrell, the director of Cornell University’s Uihlein Sugar Maple Research and Extension Field Station.

Crown Maple Syrup in the Madava tasting room.
The evaporator and barrels in a production area at Madava.
Another look at the tasting room.
The Crown Maple evaporator.
    Credits: Devorah Klein Lev-Tov

    Turner’s research revealed that maple syrup is produced by tapping trees during the 20-or-so prime tapping days a year. These are days when the weather is right: In the 40s during the day and below freezing at night. Then, the collected sap is heated to evaporate the extra liquid, forming a thick syrup, and then often barreled over several days. But Turner began to wonder two things: (1) why the sap couldn’t be turned into syrup and barreled the same day it came out of the tree to preserve freshness and (2) if there wasn’t another way to remove the extra liquid apart from prolonged exposure to heat, which some say causes burning and excess caramelization.

    In 2011, Turner and his wife Lydia began their first maple syrup production season at Madava Farms (named for their two daughters, Maddie and Ava). “The reason I get excited about the sugaring season and Crown Maple is that it allows us to be stewards of these amazing hardwood forests,” says Turner, who makes it a point to work with local environmental groups like the New York Forest Owners Association and the nearby Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.

    In order to barrel the syrup on the same day, it’s necessary to produce enough syrup to fill at least one barrel. While this seems like an easy task (a barrel’s not that big, right?), it becomes more daunting when you realize that it takes 40-50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Jacob Griffin, executive chef and retail manager at Madava Farms, explains that with many environmental factors at play, yield at the end of the day and season can vary significantly. Over a season, a single tap will produce anywhere from a third to a half-gallon of syrup. At 40,000 taps, a light day can be as little as one barrel, while 10 barrels can be made on a good day.

    Some farms, and especially small-batch producers, don’t always have the capacity to fill a barrel in one day, so they will often fill one over several days. Why is that so bad? Griffin says, “Natural yeasts and bacteria live in the air and can find maple sap an inviting place to grow. Barreling the maple the same day the sap is harvested significantly decreases this growth. Mold and bacteria growth reduces yield, but more importantly, contaminates and detracts from the natural flavor of maple.” He adds, “Our sugaring crew will work all hours of night until the sap has all been converted. We average less than 18 hours from bark to barrel.”

    Other maple syrup producers put same-day barreling at a priority as well. Nearby purveyor Snowy Pass Farm, who has been in the business for eight years, produced about 60 gallons of syrup last year and also commits to barreling within 24 hours of tapping the tree. They’ve added another component as well to improve sap quality — an ultraviolet sterilizing lamp. Owner Colin Brodsky says, “As the sap enters our sugarhouse, we pass it through a stainless steel chamber that contains a glass tube with a UV lamp. The UV lamp kills any trace microorganisms, helping to ensure the sap remains at the highest possible quality.”

    The sugarhouse at Snowy Pass.
    Some Snowy Pass syrup on display at Another Fork in the Road , a store where the syrup is sold.
    Last season's upgraded aSAP RO machine, a reverse osmosis device to make maple syrup.
      Credits: Colin Brodsky

      However, the main technological advance comes in with the evaporating process. While you must boil the sap at some point in order to create maple syrup, using a reverse osmosis machine for at least part of that process is faster and more energy efficient. During his research, Turner saw many larger producers in Vermont and Quebec using a reverse osmosis unit to remove about 45 percent of the water. Even Snowy Pass Farm uses one, a small-scale system that they designed themselves.ƒ

      Sap is 98 percent water, so that still left a lot of evaporating to do, done by heating in an evaporator machine or by more traditional methods. At Snowy Pass Farm, after they reach about 6 percent sugar concentration in the sap using the reverse osmosis machine, they then boil the sap over a wood fire until they reach 67 percent sugar — when it becomes maple syrup. “In general, we believe technology has a lot of value in producing very high-quality maple syrup in an environmentally responsible manner. But it’s also important to not lose sight of traditional production methods that have made a wonderful product for hundreds of years,” Brodsky says, which is why they use a combination of new technology along with the traditional wood-burning method.

      With technology as a focus, Turner commissioned the Leader Company in Vermont to work with Springtech to custom-build a gigantic reverse osmosis unit — the only one of its kind when he commissioned it — with the ability to remove 90 percent of the water without any heating. This super-machine processes 3,000 gallons per hour and can handle 100,000 taps.

      At this stage, some heating is still necessary to evaporate the remaining 8 percent of liquid, so the sap is then sent to the evaporator. Staying true to form, Turner has one of the largest and most energy-efficient evaporators. Madava Farms is also using a new proprietary filtering technology called Dissolved Air Floatation. Compton Chase-Lansdale, the farm’s CEO, explains, “This process removes cellulose and other extraneous materials from the sap before it moves through our system.” With more efficient filtration, he claims the syrup is improved.

      And, indeed, feedback on Madava Farms’ syrup has been good. The syrup is sold to famous chefs and everyday consumers alike — each barrel goes through a rigorous tasting and grading process by Griffin, with its tasting notes and suggested uses labeled on each barrel. That way, Griffin can recommend that Chef Jonathan Benno of Lincoln Ristorante in New York City use this batch for his Tortelloni di Zucca or that Blue Marble Ice-Cream in Brooklyn use that batch for their maple-flavored ice-cream. Snowy Pass Farm stays more local, with their products (they also produce a birch syrup and honey) only being sold to restaurants and consumers in the Hudson Valley.

      Syrup technology continues to be tested at both farms. Brodsky says Snowy Pass has been selected as one of two farms in New York that will serve as official research collaborators with Cornell University for a new study launching this spring that will aim to model the economic viability of birch syrup production in New York State. Chase-Lansdale says that Madava Farms is investigating remote sensor technology for use in the forests to enhance the ability of their forest crew to efficiently locate and remedy any leaks in their extensive tapping infrastructure. Staying on the cutting edge of technology in the field will allow them to continue producing high-quality syrup, even as their output increases. Head of Maple Operations at Madava Farms Tyge Rugenstein says that they have increased output by 20 percent in the last year and are looking to expand to other “maple-rich” locales upstate. “New York State has amazing potential for growth with its naturally dense sugar maple forests,” he says.

      Vermont, you’ve been warned.