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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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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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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.

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