Local Artisan: Making Maple Syrup with Mark Harran

Neil Gluckin

Neil Gluckin is a writer, communication consultant and local food advocate who lives in Wilton, CT. He explores the links between food, self and community in his blog at forageprimeval.com.

After firing up the generator that runs the vacuum pump, Mark Harran watches intently as liquid begins to flow through plastic tubing connected to a sleek spout protruding from the trunk of a tree. We are a long way from wooden buckets, tanks of sap on horse-drawn sleds and rustic smoke-filled sugar houses, but Harran is aiming at the same result: maple syrup, the addictive nectar that Americans have been distilling from the sap of the sugar maple since the legendary Chief Wokis first struck a tree with his tomahawk and made it weep sweet tears.

A 30-year veteran of the food industry, Harran, now retired, has returned to his roots. He grew up on a farm in upstate New York that hung buckets from 5,700 taps, and he lives on one now, in Litchfeld, where he does the same thing albeit on a smaller scale. In addition to being a private farmer, he also serves as President of the Maple Syrup Producers Association of Connecticut. In both roles, Harran is a zealous advocate of sustainable forest management and a promoter of modern production techniques.

But the issue that really engages this modern local food artisan goes considerably beyond a love of trees and technology. You’ll see it for yourself next time you buy maple syrup. Where does the stuff sold in your store come from? Vermont is sure to be represented, Canada without doubt, and possibly New York, Massachusetts or Pennsylvania. And how much syrup from Connecticut? Unless you’re at a farmers market, you’re not likely to find any.

“We currently tap about one-tenth of one percent of all the sugar maples in the state,” Harran says, noting that the resulting annual yield of syrup and other maple sugar products is worth about $1 million. That places Connecticut in last place behind the 9 other states where maple syrup is made. “If Connecticut tapped the same percentage of its trees as Vermont does – 2.1% -- the annual contribution to the state’s economy would exceed $20 million in ten years,” he calculates. For that matter, Harran adds, if all the U.S. States producing maple products raised their tapping percentage to Vermont’s level (the current nationwide average is .4%), the value produced would exceed $300 million and the U.S would eclipse Quebec, the current world leader.

No matter what the amount, the process of creating maple syrup from tree sap is a miracle of arboreal and human ingenuity. For most of the year, the sap of the sugar maple is an inedible mixture of water and various starches. But in February and March, in preparation for the growing season that lies ahead, enzymes in the tree convert starch to sugar. Taps and buckets (or vacuum tubing) at the ready, maple syrup makers everywhere pray the process will start early and continue as long as possible. “Typically the season begins on February 1 and continues for 6 to 8 weeks,” Harran explains, “although cold weather this year has delayed the start considerably. My rule of thumb is that when the baseball season begins, the maple sugar season is over.”

Daylight is the main driver of the process. At this time of the year, as the days get longer and the temperature of the wood reaches 40 degrees, the starch-converting enzymes get busy. Cold nights and sunny days cause pressure inside the tree to rise, driving energy-rich sap – as much as 200 to 300 gallons per day -- upwards to still-dormant buds. The same pressure that pushes the sap up also pushes it out of the tree through the maple syrup maker’s taps and spouts. In mid to late March, when the temperature of the wood reaches 45 degrees, the starch-converting enzymes stop functioning, and shouts of “play ball!” are soon heard across the land.

While the sap is running, it needs to be collected frequently; otherwise it will begin to ferment, just as milk might if left out too long. On the same day as he collects sap, Mark Harran boils it, evaporating the water away until the sugar content of the resulting liquid reaches 66% (or “66 brix” in the lingo of the trade). Sap collected in the cooler, early part of season tends to have sugar content as high as 4% and relatively little fermentation. This sap therefore requires less cooking, and consequently produces the paler and more delicately flavored “A” grades of syrup. Sap collected later in the season has lower sugar and will tend to ferment more because daytime temperatures are higher. More boiling is required to get this later-season sap to 66 brix, which in turn produces the darker, more strongly-flavored “B” grade. Early or late, as the sap cooks, its various constituent sugars interact and the resulting chemical reaction creates both the color and depth of flavor that are the characteristic hallmarks of maple syrup.

Harran’s approach to making maple syrup is a model of environmentally compatible technology. That means he employs techniques that produce more syrup without increasing energy use, carbon emissions or stress to either tree, forest or syrup maker. The newly developed vacuum-pumping system that he uses on 300 of his 500 trees, for instance, allows him to increase annual yields from 10 gallons of sap per tap to 40 or more.  In his sugarhouse, he saves energy by using the steam from his evaporator to pre-heat sap to 200 degrees as it flows into the boiling pan. The bottom line for these improvements is that Harran gets six times more syrup from the same amount of energy. He notes that there other techniques now being refined, such as using reverse osmosis to increase the brix of the sap before it gets to the evaporator, that further reduces the amount of cooking required. Considering that it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup – in other words, a whole lot of boiling -- these gains in efficiency are significant.

To turn Connecticut maple syrup into a $20+ million a year revenue generator, in Harran’s view, calls for more than sophisticated production techniques. Protecting not only the state’s sugar maples for the long haul (a single tree will be productive for 300 years or more) but also its forests is an obvious and essential requirement. And so is a modern marketing system, one in which farmers collaborate in order to guarantee uninterrupted supply and efficient order fulfillment to large grocery chains and other sizeable buyers here and abroad.

Harran is optimistic about the prospects for a robust local food infrastructure in our state. “There’s a new generation of farmers coming of age in Connecticut,” he says, “who combine technological smarts with business acumen. They’re the reason that smaller specialty farms are showing signs of growth.” For all his enthusiasm for 21st century farming, Mark Harran, who describes himself as a  “maple worshipper,” is clearly in love with making syrup, as he has been all his life. Says he: “there’s nothing like a night in the sugar house, producing a few gallons an hour, making the real stuff. There’s just no greater satisfaction.” Well, there might be just one satisfaction sweeter than making maple syrup, and that would be eating it.  

Got a craving for syrup?

Maple syrup producers are normally happy to welcome visitors, explain the process and of course sell their products. This 2010 guide to Connecticut Sugarhouses will help you locate one near you. There may also be other local maple sugar producers where you live running special programs. Ambler Farm in Wilton, CT, for instance, has a maple syrup open house from 12:30 to 1:30 this coming Saturday, March 6 (there’s more information on their website), and a maple syrup sale on April 3. Winter Farmers Markets including Coventry, Litchfield and Wooster Square in New Haven sell local syrup. For a complete list of winter markets, visit this CT Department of Agriculture website.