A traditionalist boils his last sap run of the season
NEW HAVEN — The chorus of spring peepers’ early season song marks the end of maple sugaring season. For many sugarmakers across the lower elevations of Addison County’s Champlain Valley, last weekend likely marked this sugar season’s final sap run.
“I’m boiling in the frog run,” bellowed George Crane over the roar of his wood-fire evaporator.
Crane, whose small sugar shack off River Road in New Haven is distinguished by his $10 quarts, has been sugaring since the 1960s when he was eight years old. Some might call him “old school” and some might just call him “local;” whatever you call him Crane is seriously dedicated to making high-quality syrup using bare-bone techniques.
“No foreign oil was used to make this syrup,” Crane said with a proud smile.
His evaporator runs on wood — Crane’s own wood. When asked what type of wood is best for boiling sap, he responded incredulously, “Maple, of course!”
With no vacuum pumps, no reverse osmosis and no high-tech, Crane’s operation is pretty darn traditional. He does run 34 sap lines out of 211 of his taps for trees on steep slopes. But, for the remaining 177 taps, he retrieves the buckets himself with aid from a team of horses that haul the sap to the sugar shack.
The price of Crane’s syrup is what catches many a consumer’s eye. How does he do it?
“Think!” he said.
By using basic techniques and simple technology, and working his tail off, Crane said he has very low costs that enable him to reduce his price. Additionally, he sells all of his syrup himself.
Crane acknowledges that with new technology it’s easier to make high-grade syrup. He said Grade A Fancy syrup must be processed within two hours of the sap being drawn.
“The vacuum gives you more volume of sap per tap. So that’s more sap and it gives you clearer, quicker syrup thus making better quality syrup. But, there’s a cost of diminishing returns,” Crane warned.
As the quantity of syrup is increased by better technology, he explained, at a certain point the technology will no longer return the same level of increase that it originally did. If too much of modern technology is applied, it could lead to greater inefficiency, he argued.
Nonetheless, sugarmakers using modern technology often do have an advantage to those that don’t, Crane conceded.
“You can make more syrup with less taps and better quality syrup using a vacuum and a pipeline and reverse osmosis,” he said. “But, there’s a tremendous initial cost to getting started and not everybody has the financial backing to do so.”
Although Crane boasts consistent syrup profits, there’s more than just money to his operation. Crane is a maple purist, and he’s happy to reduce his hassle and “ego.”
The sap lines are effective, Crane admits, but he said, “You still have to hire help. Deer run through the lines, sometimes there’s vandalism, trees fall, and you have chipmunks and squirrels … You get a little pin hole leak and all of a sudden things aren’t running so well.
“With the (sap) bucket you can tell whether a tree is good or bad,” he said. “It happens right there — you saw it. The sap comes out, you can see it drip — you can physically see it.”
Crane tries to keep his sugaring ego free.
“It’s not what you want, it’s what you get. It’s what the tree gives you. Man’s ego has created products to alter syrup,” he said.
As for this year’s “frog run” — the term sugarmakers like Crane use to refer to the syrup season’s final hoorah — George will only boil one run of sap.
“Some people boil off three frog runs, but that’s a bit greedy,” he smiled. “I’m done.”
With that, he turned around, grabbed a wooden train whistle, puffed out a “Choo! Choo!,” flicked a lever on the evaporator, and out poured fresh steaming maple syrup.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at email@example.com.