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When we made our syrup last year, we bottled it into industry-standard bottles and sold it at the Williamstown Farmers Market last summer.  We were not particularly impressed with these bottles, because they looked too much like other products.  We wanted to let people know our maple syrup is something special.  We wanted to be different and to stand out.  We wanted to impress a market that perhaps is not aware of all the wonderful culinary uses for maple syrup, other than pouring it over their breakfast foods.

After some feedback we received at our first Farmers Market, we got in touch with the local folks at Corporate Papers, who prior to designing unique corporate stationery, were ad and marketing people and designers.  We thought their unique skills and enthusiasm for what we were trying to do was a perfect fit for us in helping us design a special container for our gourmet maple syrup.

After hearing our story and touring our sugar bush, they enthusiastically put together a set of three possible directions to go with the maple syrup bottle design.  We liked the possibilities of tapping into the gourmet culinary market, so far as yet untapped – pun intended.  So our bottle design process, having chosen the direction we wanted to go, involved choosing a bottle shape.  To do this, Beth had to research glass container companies and have them send samples of different shaped bottles.  They were all very willing, which enabled the folks at Corporate Papers to design a label for each style bottle using the photograph Beth took last year of our maple trees with sap buckets hanging from them.  Corporate Papers experimented with a few different font styles, and we collectively agreed on the current bottle style and font.

The next thing to decide was what information had to be on the bottles.  Beth knew that some information was required by law and did some more research to learn what elements needed to be on the label.  We also discussed adding bar codes, which we were hesitant to do at first because of the high cost involved.  Because we were going to potentially market our maple syrup to specialty food stores, we felt the investment of acquiring bar codes would make it easier for stores to stock and sell it.

With bar codes in hand and finalizing the label design, we also needed caps.  We had to go back and forth with the bottle supply companies to make sure the caps fit properly and were the best color to make our maple syrup bottles look their best.  We decided the silver was very classy looking and brought out the silver in the buckets on the photo.  Beth also wanted to have shrink-wrap, tamper-evident seals on the bottles and was able to find a product that was both biodegradable and did not require heat to apply.

Now the bottle was complete – well, almost.  It was missing something.  We felt our story needed to go with it, and we wanted to provide a separable “business card” so folks could easily reorder our product or know where to find it when they ran out.  A hang tag was the best solution, so Corporate Papers designed a hang tag that told our story and provided the information for our customers to get a hold of us once they discarded their empty syrup bottles!

The next step was to make mock-ups of all our bottle sizes and introduce it to the public.  The first step was to get a photograph of the bottles, but we did not have any syrup to put in it.  So we filled the bottles with tea, a similar color to syrup, and got a terrific shot!  We used that on our brochures to give to folks at the Holiday Farmer’s Market in Williamstown when we introduced our gourmet maple syrup and its new packaging.  The feedback was tremendous which gave us affirmation that we were on the right track.

Sweet Brook Farm Gourmet Maple Syrup Bottles

The finished product!

Next it was time to research suppliers and to start ordering all the elements of our packaging.  With Corporate Papers’ assistance, we found the suppliers for our first big order of all the elements – the bottles, caps, label printers, someone to mechanically apply the labels, shrink-wrap bands, hang tag printer, and elastic loops.  In early February 2010, we got notice that a tractor-trailer would be delivering seven pallets of bottles, caps, and shrink bands.  Unfortunately, we don’t have a loading dock on our farm, and our driveway is too narrow for a tractor-trailer to come up it.  Thankfully, Beth came up with the idea of calling their local lumber supplier – r.k. Miles — and asked for their help.  We were willing to pay them to have the truck to deliver the pallets to their loading dock and they in turn deliver the pallets to our farm.  They have a smaller flat bed with a boom that has delivered lumber to us over the summer.   Beth was pleasantly surprised and touched that they offered to do it for no charge!  This was an incredibly neighborly gesture, and we are very grateful for their assistance.

So now our barn is full of bottles, caps, supplies, kegs, and jugs.  All of this came together over the course of the summer and fall, and impressively close to sugaring time!  But we got it done with the help of many enthusiastic neighbors, friends, and local businesses.  Now we patiently wait for that first sap run.  Right now it is snowing with about four inches on the ground.  All our taps are in the trees, which we finished doing yesterday.  Maple syrup folk lore says that if you don’t have a January thaw, don’t even bother putting out your buckets.  We had a late January thaw!  Another one is that the trees produce more sap when there’s a blanket of snow covering their feet.  We have that now!  And to top it off, the five-day weather forecast indicates temperatures in the mid 30s.  We are all very excited here at Sweet Brook Farm for the possibilities that lie ahead of us this year.  Stay tuned for our next posting which we hope to have something to say about making our gourmet maple syrup!

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LOOK MOM…NO HANDS!

Greetings again from Sweet Brook Farm where we are in the process of making our gourmet maple syrup.  This is the next installation in our story of how we get the best tasting maple syrup available today.  When you read these posts, we hope you get the feeling of how much TLC goes into this process.  This is truly a labor of love for all of us here at Sweet Brook Farm.

As we’ve mentioned in several prior posts, one key aspect that makes our maple syrup here at Sweet Brook Farm special is that all our sap is pumped automatically to our sugar house for immediate processing.  Our pump house is designed to keep the maple sap cool and deliver it with a bare minimum of hold time.  Our sap never sits around or warms up in collection tanks or buckets so it yields the purest syrup possible.

The almightly pumphouse!

Sap lines, vacuum lines, and our main pump-up line are all are tethered to the pump house, which is a small 8’x10’, well-insulated structure that rests at the low point of our system.  All the sap drains to it by gravity via the underground lines so it never warms up in tubing that is heated by the sun.

Mulitple lines are tethered to the pump house

Inside the pump house, the sap is never allowed to freeze.  A small ceramic heater, shown at bottom left, maintains the temperature around 35°F inside.  The main vacuum releaser and a 1.5 hp sap pump are mounted above a 300-gallon stainless steel tank.  During periods of peak sap flow on warm sunny mornings in February and March, the sap will be flowing in from 3,500 taps at about 30 gallons per minute.  Since the working volume of the tank is only 100 gallons the average residence time of our sap is only 3 minutes!  The remaining 1,000 taps in our system flow to an electric releaser housed on another part of the property.  This will be the topic of a future article.

Sap pump and heater

The black plastic tubing is connected to the vacuum manifold on the releaser with clear “tiger flex” tubing.  In total there are 11 lines bringing sap and vacuum to the main releaser which will be dumping its 19.2- gallon load of sap about every 40 seconds during a good sap run.

Tiger Flex Tube Connections

Each line enters the main manifold through a ball valve which allows us to isolate each line from different areas in the sugar bush and to check for air leaks in the system.

Sap lines are isolated to simplify checking for leaks

To inspect a line, we simply close the valve for a few seconds and then open it and observe the flow of sap through that line.  If a big blast of air comes in we know where to look for air leaks.

Checking for leaks

The sap drains from the manifold section into the releaser tank.  As the tank fills, a float valve rises in the tank.

Float valev in releaser tank

The float valve shuts off the vacuum to the releaser for a brief moment and the sap dumps into the storage tank below.  As the sap empties, the float falls inside the releaser, and vacuum is restored.  This is an entirely mechanical apparatus, and all the moving parts must be lubricated on a daily basis to keep it working smoothly.  A vacuum gauge on the manifold allows us to set the vacuum in our sugarhouse for the best operation of the releaser.  We target 24” of vacuum in the pump house.

Vacuum is lost briefly and sap dumps into storage tank below

When sap is flowing into the tank, the pump is controlled by a float switch in the back of the tank.  In the front is where the sap is suctioned into the pump.  A pump strainer on the bottom prevents any foreign material from entering the pump head.   A check valve on top of the strainer prevents the 90 gallons of sap that fills the pump-up line from flowing back into the tank when the pump stops.

The pump is controlled by a float switch

The main control panel in the pump house allows for smooth automatic operation.  The thermostat, shown in the upper left, senses the outside temperature.   When it warms up in the morning, power goes to a magnetic starter coil that allows the pump to operate.  The magnetic starter provides protection for the pump so it can never operate if sap were to freeze in the pump-up line.  At night when the temperature drops, the magnetic coil shuts off, but power is supplied to the heater and a solenoid valve that opens to allow the pump-up line to drain back to the sap tank.

The main control panel

When temperatures drop below freezing, we need to drain the sap from the pump- up line so it will not be clogged with ice when sap begins to flow the next morning.  The solenoid valve shown here will open automatically when freezing begins to let the line drain.  This high-tech automated system will allow Pete and Beth to spend most of their time in the sugar house making syrup and not out collecting sap!

Solenoid valve opens automatically when below freezing to drain the line

Well.. that is all for today, but we are getting closer to completing the puzzle.   Make sure to come back for our next post!

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OK.. so when we left off, the sap at Sweet Brook Farm which is used to make our gourmet maple syrup has just finished its long journey from the trees, under the ground, and into the sugar house.  Remember that one of the key factors of the grade of the syrup is minimizing its exposure to sunlight and the warm temperatures.  That is why our state-of the-art sap collection system ensure that our maple syrup is the best tasting around.  In the maple syrup world less sunlight  equals better taste!

Now that we’ve seen how the sap is collected, let’s take a look at where it goes and what happens to it.  In this first photo, you see the black main sap lines dumping into the 1,700-gallon, cone-bottom sap collection tank.  The white PVC pipes are for the vacuum lines and vacuum pump exhaust

1,700 gallon sap collection tank

This is the vacuum pump system used to create vacuum in the sap lines which better facilitates sap flow and helps with those low-lying areas that need to “boost” the sap up hill.  The large black tub of water is used to cool the pump.

The vacuum pump system and cooling tub

After the sap starts to collect in the main collection tank, it gets pumped to the reverse-osmosis (RO) unit.  Here, the sap gets pushed through the membrane columns, pushing through some of the water in the sap and holding back sugar-concentrated sap.  The sugar content in raw maple sap is about 2%.  The RO unit will bring the sugar content of the sap up to about 10%, removing about 80% of the water, which in turn saves about 80% of the fuel otherwise needed to evaporate sap to syrup.

Reverse osmosis system

From the RO unit, the concentrated sap, or concentrate, is pumped to the concentrate tank where it will dump into the evaporator.  We built a special platform to hold this 150-gallon tank above the evaporator, so it can feed by gravity.  Once this tank fills up, the oil-fired arch is turned on, and evaporation begins!

The concentrate tank - Let the evaporation begin!

Our evaporator is designed to boil off 160 gallons of water per hour, making approximately 20 gallons of syrup per hour if fed 10% concentrate.  The steam hood over the evaporator pans preheats the concentrate before it enters the pan, further saving fuel.  An automatic take-off valve controls the flow of syrup into a 100-gallon finishing pan where a final adjustment can be made before it is finished and packaged.  The final syrup is 66% sugar.

Sap goes into the evaporator, and maple syrup comes out

The evaporator pans collect niter, or maple sand, that must be cleaned routinely to prevent damage to the pans and off-tasting syrup.  We have installed rope pulls to lift the steam hood off the rear evaporator pan.

Heavy-duty rails and additional rope pulls are used to lift and remove the rear pan and to slide it out the door of the sugar house for periodic cleaning.

Evaporator pans are set up with rope pulls for periodic cleaning to ensure consistent taste

A gear pump forces the finished syrup through this filter press to remove foreign debris and niter.  From here, the syrup is packaged in 5-gallon containers or transferred to our bottling unit for packaging.

This is the point at which we grade the syrup using USDA standards of Grade A Light Amber, Medium Amber, Dark Amber, or Grade B Commercial.

Once the syrup travels through the filter press, it is time to give it a USDA Grade

Each day, the tanks and RO membrane are rinsed out using a garden hose and fresh water.

Daily cleaning keeps us busy and your syrup tasting great

Our new mezzanine will store the finished syrup, some in the 5-gallon blue containers shown in this photo.  This is also where we will store our bottling supplies and other seasonal farm equipment.

Our brand new mezzanine where we store the finished product until it is shipped out or bottled

Stay tuned for our next post where we talk about the pump house, which at the time of writing this post, is not quite finished.  We are hoping for some warmer temperatures so we can finish the work that needs to be done in there.

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We figured that you would want to know the process that ensures our gourmet maple syrup is the best-tasting and highest quality maple syrup available today.  We have done a lot of homework here at Sweet Brook Farm and in collaboration with the Red Bucket Sugar Shack, we have come up with a one-of-a-kind sugaring system.

In our research on maple sap collection, tubing systems have always used wires to support the lines through the sugar bush to prevent tube sagging.  Any sap left sitting in a sagging tube is a breeding ground for bacteria growth, so it is important to have taught sap lines so the sap can fully drain out.  Over his 40 years of sugaring, Jeff Mason of the Red Bucket Sugar Shack has developed a few easily fabricated methods to run tubes through the sugar bush without using wires.  The wireless tubing system is more economical to install and easier to repair should a tree fall down in a wind storm and take the lines down.  This is the methodology we have chosen to adopt in our maple production system.

Lateral lines are tied to the main lines using hollow nylon rope

This loop in the line is called a Drop

Starting with the tree, the lateral lines are hung through the sugar bush.  These are the blue 5/16” lines that are connected to the tree and flow into the main lines.  The loops are called drops.  These keep the system closed when the sap is not flowing.  When the taps are set into the tree every season, one end of the drop is hooked into the tap.

The lateral lines are tied to the main lines using woven, hollow nylon rope which keeps the lateral line taught while removing tension from the connection to the main line.  One end of the rope is tied to the main line, while the lateral line is threaded through the hollow rope.  Using the Chinese finger trap concept, the lateral line is pulled taught and held in place under tension.  The lateral lines can be easily loosened for repair or repositioning.

We connect the lateral line to the main line with a "stab-in" or "saddle"

Connecting the lateral lines to the main line is accomplished using a stab-in, or saddle.  A gasket in the saddle helps maintain a vacuum-tight seal.

Main lines are supported by 5/16" lateral tubing

The main lines are simply supported by loops of 5/16” lateral tubing and a nail.  Should a tree fall across the lines, the nail is pulled out of the tree, and falls down with it.  Repairs are made simply by cutting away the fallen tree and hammering the loop back into the supporting tree.

Lines with more tension are supported by logging straps

Where lines are under more tension and more strength is needed to support them, logging strap is used in a similar fashion as the lateral tubing loops.

Sometimes a main line has to bend around a tree which causes pinching of the main line.  A piece of PVC pipe cut vertically in half provides support for the bending line and reduces constriction in the line.

PVC pipe is used to prevent crimping when bending around a tree

The main lines are tied to trees and pulled taught using nylon rope threaded to specially fabricated washers.  In the summer time, the main lines relax in the heat, allowing the rope to relax, allowing the tree to grow without restriction.  This is better for the trees’ health.

Mainlines are tied to trees with rope to allow minimum growth restriction in the warmer months

This photo illustrates how the main sap and vacuum lines are supported using a series of the rope pulls as described above.  It’s important to have the tension pulling in both directions of the bend.

Proper bending of the main sap and vacuum lines

In several low-lying areas in the sugar bush, star ladders are used to get the sap up to a higher main line.  The vacuum in the system causes the gases in the sap to form bubbles that carry the sap up to the higher line where it can then drain out by gravity.

Star ladders are used in low-lying areas

Star ladders are used to get sap up to a higher main line

In other low-lying areas of the sugar bush, there are no higher lines for the sap to flow.  Vacuum can pull the liquid uphill from tub ladders through dedicated wet lines to the vacuum booster tanks.  Vacuum releasers dump the sap into the tubs, and a special foot valve in the bottom of the tub allow the wet line to pull a continuous column of sap as much as 20 feet up hill.

Tub ladders help pull the sap uphill

Main lines that carry the sap from the sugar bush terminate into vacuum booster tanks which allow sap to drain underground to the main releaser in the pump house while increasing vacuum to the main lines.  The protective frame around the tank prevents damage to the sensitive apparatus from falling limbs.

Main lines terminate into vacuum booster tanks

The main lines are color coded for easy identification and isolation of vacuum leaks.  Booster tanks can be disconnected after the season and stored inside to prevent damage from summer heat and sun.

Lines are color coded for easy identification

After flowing underground through 5,000 feet of trench below our meadows, the sap arrives at the pump house.  From there it is sent 1,400 feet directly to our sugar house for processing.

Sap travels underground to the pump house

Lines from the pump house run under our driveway up to the sugar house.

All of the lines run under our driveway

All sap is sent with minimum hold-up time to our sugar house for immediate processing.

The sap ends its journey at our sugar house

SAP COLLECTION STRATEGY

Here is my second post of what I hope to be many about what goes into the making of our Gourmet Maple Syrup here at Sweet Brook Farm.  I figured I would give you a little background so you could see where we were, where we are, and where we are going.

Back in March 2009, Pete and I paid a visit to The Red Bucket Sugar Shack, owned by Jeff and LeAnn Mason in Worthington, MA.  They run a weekend brunch during sugaring season, so we decided to see what they knew.  Jeff is a distributor for all the major sugaring equipment manufacturers and has over 40 years experience sugaring.  We had him out to see our place a few times to help us plan out how we could begin producing maple syrup.  He toured our 106 acres, looked at our trees, and started pondering a plan.  He would help us install the sap lines through the trees using his innovative techniques that he’s developed over his lifetime of sugaring.

Lots of trees and brush had to be removed to make our Maple Strategy a reality

Our property has several sugar bushes, or groupings of maple trees, scattered around the property.  Because we do not have roads to get to the bases of these areas, we wanted to limit our encounter with the notorious mud season and get the sap to a central pumping station.  Our strategy was to run tubing out of each of the sugar bushes to a series of vacuum releaser tanks that would then force all the sap to the pump house.  From the pump house, the sap will get pumped up to the sugar house.

One of the problems we ran into was the fact that we have pasture land that we use for cutting hay and, in the future, would like to put beef cattle in.  To get the sap from the different areas to a pump house would require running tubes across this pasture.  So we decided to bury the main sap lines and vacuum lines.

In August, while Jeff Mason was installing lines in the sugar bushes, we hired Scott & Lee Morrison Excavating to help us clear brush and dig trenches for the buried main lines.  We also had our friend, Larry Luczynski, owner of Timberline Builders in Chatham, MA come to help Pete with laying the lines.

The trenches were 12 feet deep in some places

Naturally, the lines had to be put in so that they were always flowing downhill, and in some places, this meant trenches that were over 12 feet deep because of the terrain.

Our underground mainline strategy has yielded some additional benefits.  Because sap contains sugar, it is a breeding ground for naturally present bacteria, and sap should always be processed, refrigerated, or treated with U/V light as soon as possible after it is collected.  Any bacteria in the sap gets boiled and killed during syrup production, so it is safe for consumption.  But that is also why there are different grades of syrup. Darker syrup is usually made from sap collected later in the season; warmer daytime temperatures and/or sap sitting in collection tanks induce bacteria growth.  However, we believe that because our sap is immediately getting pumped from the trees through underground lines, and directly to the sugar house, we minimize bacteria growth.  We predict that, if our maple production goes well, we will have a higher volume of lighter, purer syrup.

Stay tuned for more about the pump house, our facility installation, and the sugar bush tubing system!

Welcome to our blog for Sweet Brook Farm located in Williamstown, MA.  We are going to share all of our progress  with our maple syrup production, vegetable growing, and raising of alpacas.   For us, this is more than just a farm…it is a labor of love.

We are currently working hard on getting our state-of-the-art maple syrup production system running, and we are going to share it with you right here on our blog.  We should have the first batch of our gourmet maple syrup available in mid February or early March, depending on the weather.  Aside from maple sugaring, we also grow the freshest vegetables you have ever tasted so if you are in the area, be sure to stop by and say hello.  When you are here, don’t forget that we also raise prize-winning alpacas, one of the most unique animals on the planet.

We want to extend a special thanks to all of our friends who supported us this past summer at the Williamstown Farmer’s Market.  We truly appreciate it and hope to see you again next summer.

Well…there is much to do, so check back soon for our next post.