Oliverea schoolhouse maple is a 4,000 tap maple farm owned and operated by Herb Van Baren. We tagged along for the day as he tapped trees and pumped sap to be boiled down to 1,000 gallons of Catskill Mountain syrup!
This episode was sponsored by WIOX and the Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway.
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Transcribed by Jerome Kazlauskas via otter.ai
Brett Barry 0:02
Welcome back to Kaatscast, the biweekly podcast featuring nature, arts and culture in the Catskill Mountains and Hudson Valley. This is prime maple sugar time when nights dip below freezing and warmer daytime temps lead to flowing maple sap.
Herb Van Baren 0:18
I'm Herb Van Baren. Most people call me "Van" and I'm just a farmer from Oliverea (Oliverea School House Maple Owner/Proprietor), you know, I started out with just a couple taps here in Oliverea...and the next year, I saw my neighbor (Tom), he had some sugar maples, so I asked him, "Can I tap your trees?" and, you know, (eventually) I got enough taps and I left my job up (The YMCA) and started doing this full-time. I am the Sap King of Shandaken.
Brett Barry 0:46
This week, we check in with Herb Van Baren, a maple sugarer here in the Catskills. Kaatscast is supported by WIOX Community Radio. Live and local in the Catskills. Reflective, responsive, and supportive at 91.3 FM, MTC cable channel 20, wioxradio.org, and with any smartphone radio app (Alexa, Play WIOX), and by the 52-mile Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway; following New York State Route 28 through the heart of the Central Catskills. For maps, itineraries, and links to area restaurants, shops, and accommodations, visit sceniccatskills.com.
Herb Van Baren 1:33
Now these trees I've been tapping for 10-15 years at least. Now that tree right there with the three taps on it. I wish I had a thousand of those because that is probably the best running tree in the entire valley. So it runs great. It has a wonderful sugar content. One of my favorite trees.
Brett Barry 2:00
With the exception of being a grocery store cashier in his past, Van has spent most of his working life outdoors. Today, even among over 2,000 other producers in New York State, he is one of a handful of sugarers producing Ulster County Syrup commercially. I first met with Van on a late March day in 2014 to see his syrup production process. He brought me on a tour through his various sugar bushes in the area and showed me his solo setup to make that delicious Oliverea School House Maple Syrup. He also shared with me the potential value of sugaring at home, along with some tips on harvesting your own sap.
Herb Van Baren 2:46
You can see free half a tree like that...you get almost 10 gallons of sap from three taps in one day and 10 gallons of sap will make a pint of finished syrup. See that 30 days you got 30 pints...that's a lot of syrup from one tree.
Brett Barry 3:02
New York State has the largest population of tappable maple trees in the United States. So if you're a New Yorker, you may just have access to a sugar bush in your own backyard. Anyone wishing to make their own maple syrup can do so with tools around their house and a maple tree in their yard. However, the hardest part (says Van) is removing the water from the sap through the boiling process.
Herb Van Baren 3:24
When you have a way to boil it down at home, if you were to tap any trees or...
Brett Barry 3:28
How long does it take?
Herb Van Baren 3:29
You know, depends on how much sap you have and it can take hours and you have to have the time to do it and get a candy thermometer and maple syrup boils at seven and a quarter degree above the boiling point of water for that day at 66% sugar.
Brett Barry 3:46
Maple trees can produce sap for years, if they are kept in healthy condition. In many cases, they can be tapped for decades. Van has been tapping the same trees here in the Catskills for more than 20 years.
Herb Van Baren 3:59
The amount of sap that you're getting out of the tree is really no problem for the tree whatsoever. It's kind of like you getting a little cut, you get a small section of compartmentalization inside the tree. So you're introducing a little bit of bacteria and mold and fungus into the tree and that's why you have tapping guidelines as you don't want to put too many taps in a tree because then your moss will take a chainsaw and girdle it because you're going to kill it within, you know, 10-20 years...and it's blowing. There is what I like to see and (yeah) when you tap, you want to have your drill bed at a slight upward angle into the tree and that's not to get the sap out because the sap's flowing out because you have high pressure inside the tree (kind of like), if you shake a Coke can. When the reason you tap up into the tree is when you pull the spiral at the end of the year. Water can't collect in there. If you tap down into it (that'll just hold water), you'll get even more damage to the tree and this tree I've been tapping for 20 years. These guys here.
Brett Barry 5:13
Van uses a vacuum pump to help draw sap through a web of plastic tubing connected to each tap. Unlike classic gravity fed sap collecting methods, this method of extraction nearly triples the amount of sap drawn from each tree.
Herb Van Baren 5:28
Watch out! Open one valve. Open two valves...and then if you go over there, you can get the sap coming in the tank. This is a gas power sap pump (a water transfer pump). What's coming out of the tree is 50% CO2, 50% sap, so that vacuum pump is actually pulling the CO2, not the sap. That pump will run on a gallon of gas or run for nine hours and in that nine hours in a good day, I'll collect almost 800 gallons of sap out of here. So that's a pretty good investment. When it's flowing really hard, it's like a garden hose coming off the mountain and I've had it where these three tanks (I've emptied them at 11 o'clock and I've come back out at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, five hours later, and the tanks are full). 1,000 gallons of sap in five hours from 1,200 tap. That's pretty impressive. That's not happening today.
Brett Barry 6:11
And that's a cold evening, nice warm day?
Herb Van Baren 6:47
That's a cold evening and a nice warm day and (yeah) I did perfect conditions.
Brett Barry 6:52
In New York, the perfect time to harvest sap is from late March until nights get too warm to freeze the sap before the daytime thaw.
Herb Van Baren 7:01
And it's best to be in the days in the mid to upper 40s, nights in the mid and upper 20s...and a good day, these tanks will be full to the top and a really good day...and they hold, you know, 300 gallons each, but then when they're full, they spread out so it's more like 350. That's a wonderful sound is that dumping.
Brett Barry 7:24
It looks pretty substantial.
Herb Van Baren 7:25
Some of it (too) could be the sap from last night...frozen the lines. So sometimes your first verse that you get is just the stuff that's thought out that while I'll stand here and wait a little bit to make sure one that when it dumps, the releaser is actually working that...that mechanism isn't getting stuck and two that I'm pulling on this one about 20 inches of vacuum; and now, we're pulling 18, which could mean there's a leak somewhere or could just mean there's so much sap in there that it, you know, take a little while for the vacuum to catch up.
Brett Barry 8:05
And what usually causes the leaks?
Herb Van Baren 8:06
Tubing coming apart, deer chewing on tubing, squirrels chewing on tubing, kayaks chewing on tubing, bears chewing on the tubing, Bigfoot chewing on the tubing. All kinds of different stuff. You...if you look at this one here, you can kind of see the sap in there and it's hardly moving that means there's not a leak here. If there were shooting through real fast and that there's a leak. Turn the pump off. Right now, I'm running about 2% sugar from my (last year) bush haven't tested this one, but if you see it's foamy, this is a little higher sugar content. I'm guessing this is maybe two and a half. So that would equate to under 40 gallons of sap to a finished gallon of maple syrup which is good. I normally end up somewhere around a thousand gallons of finished product (normally) as the season progresses to share content goes up, and then toward the end of the season and drops back down again. Sugarbush collection of, you know, can be 10 trees, it can be 10,000 trees and normally old Sugarbush...you'd have all the buckets and they had the horses with the sleigh and the horses would know their way through the trees. So now Sugarbush is mainly defined by tubing. So how many trees you have on tubing going into a centralized collection tank, so they share bushes 70 taps, two taps in each tree (so 35-40 trees).
Brett Barry 9:32
Next, Van took me to his sugar house where the syrup takes its final forms. In this sugar shack, tree sap is boiled down to the delicious sweetener we know as maple syrup.
Herb Van Baren 9:44
So the next step is to pump the sap from the truck into the two tanks that feed the reverse osmosis machine. This is my hired help in my reverse osmosis machine. Reverse osmosis machine that takes up to 70-75% of the water out of the sap before you boil it and most of the time that technology you use is used for water purification. We get rid of water and keep the sugar; basically the way this works is I'll have a thousand gallons of sap and the two RO tanks and there's a water pump underneath and then a high pressure pump. So the sap comes in and once it gets up to 40 psi (just with their regular water pump), I turn on the high pressure pump and there's a nanofiltration membrane in this stainless steel housing. The water molecules are small enough. They can pass through the membrane, but the sugar molecules are so large...they don't pass through the membrane. So depending on how many gallons per minute you have going through the pressure that you have, I can go anywhere from, you know, concentrate to only 4% sugar to concentrate up to 10% sugar in one pass, this RO will take basically a thousand gallons of sap will get turned into 250-200 gallons of concentrate. So instead of having to boil for 10 hours, I only have to boil for two or three hours and that time can be spent out in the woods getting leaks, getting more sap or just, you know, having more sap and boiling longer and making a lot more syrup.
Brett Barry 11:32
Since this interview, New York State has changed its grading system for maple syrup having added flavor profiles to the grading system. Here, Van explains the different colors of maple syrup: what the grades mean and what influences the color of maple syrup.
Herb Van Baren 11:48
Basically, in New York State now there's five grades of maple syrup (three or grade A) table grade...to light amber, medium amber, dark amber, anything darker than dark amber, but still has a good flavor and good taste as classified as extra dark or proper classification is extra dark for cooking, but anything that has a bad flavor to it or you added too much defoamer or, you know, you let the sap sit too long and the sap went sour. That's classified as grade C or commercial and that you can't legally sell retail. So that's that one and a half percent of real maple flavor that you get in the corn syrup junk.
Brett Barry 12:32
Those three grades of A is just a matter of personal preference?
Herb Van Baren 12:35
Basically (yeah), light amber has a little more delicate flavor to it. Dark amber is definitely more robust maple syrup and, you know, some days I'm in a light mood and some days I'm in an extra dark mood.
Brett Barry 12:48
And what influences of color?
Herb Van Baren 12:49
Well, the main thing is bacteria in the sap. The more bacteria you have in the sap (normally later in the season when it's warmer), the bacteria chew up the sucrose, which is the sugar in the sap and do a little bit of glucose and fructose that carmelizes under the heat of the evaporators (you get a darker color). At the same time, they're breaking the amino acid strands of lignans that give the maple syrup (it's maple flavor), so you get a stronger flavor or later in the season, the trees and metabolism is changing. So you're starting to work your way toward what's called buddy maple syrup and that gives it a much stronger flavor. Some people they describe it as like a woody (kind of earthy flavor). When I'm running it through the filter press, I'll take a sample of it and I'll check it for grade. I'll check it for sugar content with the refractometer and then I'll taste it to make sure it tastes good. So I do lots of shots of maple syrup. That's how I can stay up, you know, 2-3 days straight, and then also later in the year (say November), I open up a barrel and I have to bottle it for an order. I do the same thing. I checked the grade. I checked the sure content and I taste it before I put it into retail container then.
Brett Barry 13:57
So how much maple syrup do you consume each year?
Herb Van Baren 14:00
Couple gallons. I go through a lot of it more than most people do, I guess.
Brett Barry 14:07
What do you use it for besides pancakes?
Herb Van Baren 14:09
I don't use it on pancakes. I don't like pancakes that much. I put it on my Cheerios.
Brett Barry 14:15
Van's Catskills Famous Oliverea School House Maple Syrup can be found throughout the region. Hudson Valley residents can find it at the Woodstock Farm Festival, New Paltz Farmers Market, the Phoenicia Diner, and more...and if you're not in the Catskills (NO WORRIES), Van ships his maple syrup worldwide. Kaatscast is a production of Silver Hollow Audio. Production intern (Skye Ruse) wrote and produced this episode. Please be sure to subscribe wherever podcasts are found and give us a rating to help other listeners find us. Until next time, you can find us on Instagram @kaatscast. I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for listening.