By Kate Barcellos
No Vermont product is quite as iconic as pure maple syrup.
Vermont’s own liquid gold retails out at about $35 per gallon, which translates to anywhere between $13 and $14 dollars in profit for the producer.
The process from sap to syrup is labor- and time-intensive. Sap must first be collected as it flows from the sugar maples during the warm days following stark, frozen nights of Vermont’s late winter, then it is immediately set to boil before the sap can spoil. The boiling process must be continuously monitored, making sugaring a 24-hour process from start to finish — 43 gallons of sap produces a single gallon of syrup.
But, a new wave of technology has optimized the process, and the University of Vermont is ahead of the game.
In 2017, as a part of a partnership with LaPierre USA out of Swanton, a state-of-the-art Hyperbrix Evaporator and Hyperbrix Reverse Osmosis machine was donated and purchased to modernize the sugarhouse at UVM’s Proctor Maple Research Center.
The machine changed the sugarhouse entirely, producing a record 3,000 gallons during the 2018 season, a 110 percent production improvement from previous years.
“In the past, we made about 20 gallons of syrup for every hour of sugarhouse time,” said Tim Perkins, director of the Proctor Maple Research Center. “This year, we produced 42 gallons of syrup for every hour.”
Traditionally, sap is boiled in a large, flat pan over a steady heat source, but most commercial sugarhouses now use a reverse-osmosis machine to force water out of the sap by feeding it through a fine filter at high pressure, producing a more concentrated sap that is 8 to 15 percent sugar, and takes less time to boil down into syrup.
The six-post reverse-osmosis machine uses a much higher pressure, producing a thicker concentrate at a quicker rate.
“Each post is about 4 feet long, 8 inches in diameter,” Perkins said. “The post is a filter that lets water go through it, but not sugar. The more posts you have, the more sap you can concentrate per hour. Our machine will process 1,400 gallons of sap per hour, and produce concentrate up to 35 percent sugar. The fact that it will do it that fast and make it that sweet is really quite new.”
After the concentrate is produced, which takes anywhere from four to six hours, it is transferred to a new refrigerated bulk tank to keep it at a chilly 23 degrees Fahrenheit, just above syrup-freezing temperature, for storage until a designated “boiling day,” a schedule that the crew formerly couldn’t afford.
Syrup production at the Proctor Maple Research Center is now so efficient that workers are able to do the unthinkable: take days off.
“We were able to take almost every weekend off this year,” Perkins said. “If sap will run today and tomorrow, we’ll boil today and tomorrow, and spend the extra hours every day in the woods.”
A crucial element to collecting as much sap as possible is monitoring the health of the trees and making sure that the taps are clean.
“Trees are kind of like human beings, they don’t like to have microorganisms in them,” Perkins said. “If a tree senses microorganisms, it will start closing off the wound internally, a process called ‘compartmentalization,’ which keeps organisms out of the tree and the sap inside.”
This requires a brand-new plastic tap every year, or a very clean reusable one, a high vacuum to pull the sap out of the tree, and immediate attention to any leaks sprung in the hoses drawing sap to collection tanks.
Now, the team in Proctor has the time and energy to be able to adequately monitor their sources, because they’re not constantly having to monitor their sap-boiling processes.
“Having this new system allows us to make sure that when there are leaks in the system, we seal them very quickly,” Perkins said. “We have monitoring devices that detect leaks in the pipe system that contact us. If we were boiling every day, we wouldn’t be able to get out there. This gives us more time in the woods to keep the vacuum very good and production high.”
Perkins said half the syrup produced is used in the UVM dining halls, with a small amount reserved for gifts for people who visit the college, and the remainder will be sold out to a packer, with all profits circling back to the center to prepare for future upgrades.
“Every 10 years we try to go for the newest technology possible,” Perkins said.
UVM Extension maple specialist Mark Isselhardt said studies done with the new equipment will help him become more familiar with processing technology that might be around the corner, information that he can then pass on to other sugarmakers who attend the Vermont Maple Conferences.
“We have two one-day conferences, where 450-500 producers attend,” Isselhardt said. “It’s a huge event, and the main focus is a concurrent educational program where producers can pick from 20 different classes on everything from brix processing to backyard sugaring.”
The Center’s new technology will also help producers better understand how to continue to produce effectively and ecologically as climate change continues to alter sugaring schedules.
“The season tends to be earlier (than) in years past,” Isselhardt said. “Yet, when you look at the data, average yield has been increasing, largely due to the adoption of modern sap production, which has mitigated some of the losses that people would have felt when using buckets. If you are drawing any sort of income from the operation, the basic cost of production and sustainability of the business is important.”