By Jordan J. Michael
KNOX –– Brian Whipple said he doesn’t have all the answers when it comes to making maple syrup, but once that incredible, highly appealing smell of boiling maple sap hits the nostrils, nothing else matters.
For 14 years, Whipple’s Malachi Farm Sap House in Knox is where the sweet magic happens in March. Honestly, it’s not the most captivating process, but the maple syrup sure does smell and taste wonderful.
Lock me in that sap house all day and I wouldn’t care.
Jim Schager, who trucked in the sap on Monday, handed me a pretzel cigar. I dipped it in syrup. Then, I drank the rest of the syrup like a shot of whiskey.
“I enjoy the finished product on my pancakes,” said Whipple. His late father, Bob, built the sap house in 1992, but didn’t start boiling sap until 1999.
Maple sap looks just like water, but the 2-percent sugar content makes it different. Whipple’s double-chamber stainless steal evaporator holds 300 gallons of sap. The wood burns hot underneath, as the sap slowly becomes syrup.
“As the sugar content goes up, it boils hotter,” Whipple said. “It’ll get to about 215 degrees, but the magic number is 219. It takes a long time.”
Malachi Farm is one of the few remaining places that make syrup from burning wood. Whipple usually ends up with 150 gallons of syrup –– 40 gallons of sap makes one gallon of syrup –– but he said it depends on the weather.
The sap from the trees flows best when it’s around 45 degrees during the day, and freezing at night, said Whipple’s buddy, Elwood Vandervilt. In that case, sap will draw into the trees’ limbs during the day, then recede at night. If March is too warm, like last year, the trees start budding too early, altering the flavor of the sap.
“Very unpredictable,” said Eric Prescott of the trees. He’s much younger than the other three men, but loving maple syrup has nothing to do with age.
Whipple has 300 taps connected to plastic tubing from one maple tree to the next. That tubing runs to a big tank, which is pumped to another tank by a gravity feed. This process is much more efficient than using buckets.
“This is as natural as it can be,” Whipple said. Vandervilt stood up, grabbed a skimming tool, and took some foam off the top. “If the fire gets too hot, the sap can boil real high,” said Whipple. “Just a pinch of butter keeps it down, but we barely ever have to do that.”
Some larger-scale maple-syrup producers use a reverse osmosis machine. Reverse osmosis is a membrane-technology filtration process that removes many types of large molecules and ions from mixtures by applying force to the solution when it is on one side of a selective membrane.
“It doesn’t taste as good as wood fire,” Whipple said. “It probably doesn’t smell as good, either.”
That amazing smell continued to loom. Sap in the front chamber of the evaporator slowly turned from light brown to dark. Condensation dripped down from the open space in the roof as steam clashed with the cold air outside.
Whipple and his sap mates pour five gallons of syrup at a time into the “finishing pan,” but only after the hydrometer floats around 55 “brix,” Prescott said, as he demonstrated with a batch that wasn’t quite ready.
Degrees Brix is the sugar content of an aqueous mixture. One degree Brix is one gram of sucrose in 100 grams of solution and symbolizes the strength of the solution as percentage by weight. If the mixture contains dissolved solids other than clean sucrose, then the Brix estimates only the dissolved solid content. Brix is usually used in the wine, sugar, fruit juice, and honey industries.
It is also used in the sap house at Malachi Farm.
Whipple’s syrup is filtered twice, almost three times. The syrup isn’t put into jugs until it’s cooled to 180 degrees. The jugs are then laid on their sides so they seal properly. Whipple tries to jug all the syrup before it drops below 160 degrees.
“It’s like canning,” Whipple said. “People don’t do much canning anymore because it takes forever.”
A gallon of Malachi Farm syrup costs $52, a half-gallon costs $28, a quart costs $16, and a pint costs $10. Whipple sells the majority of his product during the annual Maple Festival, which will be held this Sunday in the Hilltowns.
“In big chain stores, the syrup costs maybe double the price,” Prescott said. “Also, it might not taste as good.”
Whipple will be giving tours of Malachi Farm on Sunday, just like the other two places that produce syrup in the Hilltowns. Paul Lounsbury, at Cross Road in Knox, has been making syrup for more than 50 years, and Mountain Winds Farm, on Williamson Road in Berne, has been producing syrup since 2008.
“Our methods are similar,” said Whipple of the other two locations. “It’s not a competition or anything.”
The Helderberg Kiwanis Club has presented the Maple Festival for 12 years as its biggest fund-raiser, Zenie Gladieux said. On Sunday, the Knox Fire House will have an all-you-can-eat breakfast from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Meals for adults are $8; kids are $4, and children under 5 eat for free.
Prescott said people will come for the syrup and pancakes, but the sausage is the best part of the meal in his opinion. There will be maple ice cream for dessert.
“I had this syrup on sweet corn and elk steaks once,” said Whipple, who also grows corn on his farm. “I poured all the corn in, cooked it down, then poured some syrup in there. I shot the elk in Colorado. It was pretty delicious.”
The festival features arts and crafts, pony rides, an Easter egg hunt, and a petting zoo at Knox firehouse on Sunday. Also, the Sap 5K Run, put on by the Helderberg Hilltwons Association, will start at 9:30 a.m at Know Town Hall; runners may register at www.hilltowns.org.
“Basically, we did this independently to support the great maple syrup made in the Hilltowns,” Gladieux said of the Maple Festival. “Everyone works together and has fun.”
The real pleasure comes from putting fresh maple syrup on whatever you want. It’s a universal substance.
“Have you ever had syrup on snow?” asked Gladieux. “Get some clean snow, roll it into softball size, and pour syrup over it. The syrup sticks right to the snow.”
There’s maple-syrup pie, maple-roast pork, maple-boiled frosting, maple cookies, and maple fudge. Randy Grippin, owner of Mountain Winds, makes custom maple candies.
Making maple syrup may take some time, but it’s no waste of time. It’s relaxing, smells wonderful, and Whipple says that his friends are always stopping by.