A Sticky Business
RIGHT ABOUT THE TIME the winter landscape is as bleak as it gets at Back Creek Farm in Highland County, something amazing is happening in the trees. The maple trees, that is. They're turning their storehouses of starch into sap. Subtle, ambrosial sap. Pretty soon – adhering to a family recipe that dates to 1838 – Pat and Valerie Lowry will harvest that clear, watery liquid and cook it down into everyone's favorite amber elixir: sweet, rich gen-u-ine maple syrup.
Even though Highland County, near the West Virginia border, is Virginia's least populous county, it is known far and wide for its maple syrup. After all, it's been home to a festival celebrating the sticky stuff every year since 1958 (this year, March 8, 9, 15, and 16). The four days of sugar-house tours and other maple-tastic festivities draw enough pancake lovers and foodies to multiply the population of the small town of Monterey by more than 200 times.
If there's anything in abundance on this particular Sunday in late February 2013, it's cold. "I think the same snow has been going around since last Tuesday," says Valerie with a smile, opening the door to make her way into her family's rustic wood sugar house, where the cozy dual aromas of fire and cooked sugar trigger an instant desire to breathe deeply.
For the Lowrys, the history and American tradition of maple farming is a big source of inspiration – precisely why they still use wood fire to make their syrup. "We cook it the same way my great-grandmother did," says Pat, a fourth-generation sugar farmer, who remembers as a child watching a layer of steam fill the valley as each farm along Back Creek cooked their own syrup. Now the only working sugar house left on the creek is the Lowrys'. "This is my favorite time of the year. At night I dream of making maple syrup. We spend the entire year getting ready to boil."
Of course, maple syrup dates back further than that – thousands of years even. Legend has it that after an Iroquois chief sunk his tomahawk into a tree trunk and left it there overnight, the sweet sap dripped out and into a bowl lying on the ground. From then on, man was hooked.
This morning, it's peak sugaring season and Valerie makes her way back outside to tap a good-size maple, hoping it'll be "running." She bores a hole using a standard power drill and hammers a small metal spigot called a spile (rhymes with "style") into the hole. With a few good whacks, the two-inch hollow spile is driven far enough into the tree to reach the xylem (sapwood), which is just under the bark. This will draw out some of the sweet sap, also known as "sugar water" – it does, after all, look more like H2O than sticky brown stuff.
"What we use are called 'tree-saver' spiles," explains Pat. "They have a smaller diameter than standard ones, so they do less damage to the trees, but you get the same amount of sugar water."
Indeed, the health of the trees is paramount at Back Creek. Even though maples are able to heal their wounds in less than a year, overtapping can take its toll. "We only tap trees once at the beginning of the season," says Valerie, "whereas old-timers would sometimes drill groups of three or four holes all around the tree and have each grouping run into one bucket."
For demonstration's sake, Valerie hooks a three-gallon galvanized bucket over the spile, and covers it with a metal lid to keep out rainwater and unwanted debris. This is the oldfashioned way of collecting sap, and used to require the daily emptying of buckets. But to improve efficiency, as is done on most modern sugar farms, the Lowrys have connected most of their spiles to an elaborate network of orange and blue tubing, which feeds into a centralized storage tank. The tubes take about a third of the time that the buckets do.
For visitors to the farm or guests of Back Creek's vacation rental cabin, the old bucket system offers a better window into the harvest. The sap, now slowly drip, drip, dripping, doesn't look like much more than plain water. Valerie – who has been known to load up her coffee maker with sap instead of water for a particularly satisfying morning cup of joe – fills a few small plastic cups with the sugar water and offers them all around. It's sweet, yes, but mild, without any of that classic maple syrup flavor. That comes later.
As is the case with pretty much any type of agriculture, a good sugar farmer needs a healthy dose of luck. "It also has a lot to do with barometric pressure," says Pat, who built his own sugar house in 2006 and has constructed two others in Highland County. "Big producers have vacuum systems to trick the trees with regards to the barometric pressure. But I don't think it's healthy for the trees, so we won't do that."
The temperature also has to be ideal: cold but not too cold. The weather must be below freezing at night and above freezing during the day. The trees will run in spite of rain or snow, but not if it's windy.
Way up in the Alleghenies, Highland County has a microclimate that just happens to be ideal for maple syrup production – one of the few places south of the Mason-Dixon Line that actually gets cold enough, for long enough, to make a go of it. (Thomas Jefferson and George Washington tried and failed to establish maple orchards at their respective Virginia estates.)
With the sap collected, the Lowrys have to move relatively fast, as sap isn't stable – meaning it will go rancid if left to sit above 60 degrees for more than three days. Syrup on the other hand doesn't even need to be refrigerated, putting it in the esteemed company of pickles and honey and the myriad of other foods that will keep long after harvest when preserved properly.
Of course, what makes Back Creek's syrup particularly delicious is that it's one of a dying breed of sugar houses in Highland County – and, for that matter, the country – still using wood fire. Most modern operations have switched to more high-tech equipment fueled by gas or oil. That means Back Creek's syrup has a flavor that reflects its process: deep and rich, with a hint of smoke. The English-tin "sugar pan" used to cook the sap belonged to Pat's great-grandmother, and was likely made by slaves. "It's all been folded and attached with rivets or screws, and the top used to be the rim of an old wagon wheel," says Pat, pointing to the midnight-black pan sitting atop the "furnace," where piles of logs are set ablaze to reduce and thicken the liquid – slowly, over the course of about a day.
Besides its pedigree, the pan is noteworthy for its size. Six feet by two and a half feet, and only seven inches deep, it maximizes surface area to make (relatively) fast work of evaporating the water from the sap (sap is only 2 percent sugar, while maple syrup is 66 percent sugar). To wrap your head around just how much evaporation has to happen: It takes 40 to 50 gallons of sap to produce just a single gallon of syrup. Which, of course, explains why real maple syrup is so much more expensive than the corn-syrup-filled stuff from Aunt Jemima.
As water evaporates, more water is added – to keep it all from cooking too quickly and to prevent the sugar from scorching. "I've burned a pan twice in my life," says Pat, pointing out that the process isn't as easy as one might think. "There's a lot of work involved to get the pan back to where you can use it again, but it's not lost."
To handle the approximately 300 gallons of syrup Back Creek produces each year, the Lowrys also rely on a more modern piece of equipment called an evaporator, which expedites the process by producing intense heat along ridges, adding up to even more surface area. That means their evaporator turns out about three times more syrup than their sugar pan is able to.
Now twelve degrees above boiling, the sugar water has officially crossed over into a state of syrup. That number, however, varies depending on barometric pressure and height above sea level. So a farm just a dozen miles away at a higher elevation might have a different boiling point. Pat confirms the syrup has made the transition by pouring some into a hydrometer cup, which looks like a metal mug with a handle and measures the density of liquids (because syrup weighs 11 pounds per gallon, and water just nine). When the red line floats, it's syrup.
Next comes the first of three rounds of filtering. "We take out the 'tree sand,' which really just looks like mud," says Valerie, her loyal 11-year-old Blue Heeler herd dog, Gracie, never far behind. "There's more of the sand at the end of the season than there is at the start. It's just a natural part of a natural process." Intentional gaps in the sugar house roof reveal it's still flurrying outside. The vents don't do much to keep out the birds – or the cold, for that matter. But their purpose is to let out the steam, which on this particular morning, floats out above some dark tipped icicles hanging from the trees. "That's all sugar," says Pat. Because water freezes before sugar – and because of gravity – it collects at the tip.
Pat and Valerie each grab a handle on an old milk can, leftover from the days when the farm also had dairy cows. Filled with eight to ten gallons of syrup, the milk can makes its way into the sugar-house kitchen. Already inside are Pat's daughter Carrie Lowry and her boyfriend Matt Hibbs, hard at work after driving over from Fredericksburg for the weekend to help with filtering and bottling. The milk can is set down with a thud. "By the end of the season, every possible container we have is full of syrup," Valerie says.
Next the golden syrup is poured into a filter press, a gleaming stainless machine the size of a small copier. The syrup is cloudy, but already looks a heck of a lot like maple syrup. Whirrrrrrr. A few seconds later, the syrup emerges clear, not cloudy at all, and travels through another tube into a big coffee urn. There, it's stored at 190 degrees to keep it hot until there are enough free hands to bottle it (by law, it must be bottled at 180 degrees or higher).
Just to be sure what he's got is still syrup, Pat checks the red line on the hydrometer again. It's right on target. "A little past syrup is even good," he says. "But if it's too thick, it'll start forming what looks like rock candy on the bottom of the bottle. And if you bottle it when it's too thin, it'll get moldy." Indeed, there's a relatively small window for getting it right.
Matt pulls up a chair, stationing himself in front of the coffee urn's push-spout. Wearing an Ove-Glove on one hand, he begins filling one bottle after another. "I have carpal tunnel just from doing what he's doing," Pat chimes in.
Matt hands a filled bottle to Carrie, whose job is to cap. "Now I have to lay the bottles on their sides, to make sure any bacteria in the air at the top is destroyed," she explains. "And it also works to check for leaks."
Next, a lesson in grading. What most people think of as maple syrup falls in the Grade A designation. But within Grade A, there are further distinctions (from lightest to darkest): Grade A Fancy, Light Amber, Medium Amber, and Dark Amber. The Fancy comes from sap harvested early in the season, and tends to be clearer and lighter in flavor. As the winter progresses, the harvest tends to be darker and more caramelized.
Beyond Dark Amber in complexion is Grade B, a favorite among chefs and foodies for the robust, woodsy flavor it adds to all manner of foods – from sweets to meats to marinades and salad dressings. "Most of what we make is Medium Amber and Dark Amber," says Valerie. "People are under the misconception that light syrup is the best syrup because it's called Fancy. But then they do a taste test, and they realize they don't want Fancy. They want something with a deeper, richer flavor." And when it comes to Back Creek's syrup, they might be tasting a bit of history in there too.
Try this recipe: Pat Lowry's Maple Oatmeal Whoopie Pies
This year marks the 56th annual Highland Maple Festival (March 8, 9, 15, and 16), a celebration of the "opening" of the trees for the season – an event so important to American history, it was designated a Local Legacy by the Library of Congress in 1999.
During the festival, thousands of people flock to sugar camps around the town of Monterey to take tours and learn first-hand about the process of taking maple sap to maple syrup. And if they're lucky, they get a taste or two. For more info about the festival, go to highlandcounty.org.