A deluge of maple syrup is in the forecast
Photography by Ann Stratton
In Dover Plains, located in eastern Dutchess County, sprawling weekender estates sit in cozy proximity to trailer homes. County routes twist back into wooded areas, giving way to multi-generation farms and thick copses of trees. The more observant traveler may spy a web of interlocking colored tubes—black, white and blue—jutting from trees and threading through acres of woods. This is not a new Christo installation, but another maverick enterprise: Madava Farms, the maker of Crown Maple Syrup.
Pancake breakfast stalwarts like Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth dominate the syrup industry with products containing mostly corn syrup and artificial flavor and coloring. (To be labeled maple-flavored syrup, only 2% of actual maple syrup is required.) Genuine maple syrup is far more rare, cultivated almost exclusively in the Northeastern United States and Canada. In this narrow niche, Crown Maple aspires to make exemplary organic maple syrup and achieve certain market domination.
“We may not get there,” says company founder Robb Turner, “but if I had my dream, that little crown that we have as our symbol would be like the Nike swoosh—everybody would know that symbol.”
In two years, Crown Maple has gained attention far beyond its home in Dutchess County, energized by a shrewd promotional campaign that emphasizes the old-time Americana nature of its product, its high standard of purity and its organic status.
“You know, there’s a lot of really crappy syrup out there,” Turner says, no doubt referring to the gallons of qualitatively suspect product holding down grocery shelf space.
Turner, 50, is an unlikely maple tapper. A West Point graduate, Army captain and Harvard Business School alum, Turner was a Wall Street investment banker and co-founder of an equity firm. His flair for capitalism, wedded to a pledge to create a quality product through sustainable practices, has quickly pushed Crown Maple into the forefront.
When he explains his success, Turner measures his words; he recognizes the jarring gap between his current venture and the previous one that funds it. ArcLight Capital Partners, which was founded in 2001, invests in pipelines and other infrastructures that transport hydrocarbon fuels. Ironically, the ecologically ruinous lessons gained at ArcLight, which he still operates, have allowed Turner to run Crown Maple with an emphasis on sustainably environmental standards.
“[What] I realized fairly quickly is that a lot of the fluid dynamics going on in the sap production industry are very similar to the fluid dynamics we see out in the oil and natural gas business.”
In the early 2000s, Turner, who maintains a home in New Jersey, began seeking a weekend retreat for wife Lydia and daughters Maddie and Ava (Madava Farms is named for them). Dutchess County reminded him of the family farm of his northern Illinois youth. In 2006, Turner bought the 450-acre Dover Plains property. As adjoining lots came to the market, Turner snatched them up and attained 800 acres. His annexation plans were not business focused; he simply sought a buffer from views of either trailers or McMansions. Idle thoughts of establishing a vineyard, an apple orchard and a logging operation were considered and discarded.
One day a neighbor, hired for some bridge construction on the property, suggested that the proliferation of maple trees on the property— there were about 25,000—might be put to good use. Turner knew nothing about tapping maple trees to make syrup. But the businessman characteristically plunged into fact-finding to determine project feasibility. “Once I decided I was going to do this, I was going to do it right,” he says.
He consulted with Mike Farrell, the head of maple tree study at Cornell Cooperative Extension, about launching a business that was high tech, cost effective and gentle to maple trees.
“It wouldn’t bother the forest,” Turner says, referring to his commitment to maintaining the integrity of the land, as well as his commitment to schooling himself in the mapling process. “It wouldn’t bother the animals in the forest. It wouldn’t bother anything about the whole wildlife experience up there. So, it seemed like the perfect use for that property to me.”
This isn’t empty tree-hugger rhetoric; Turner has the money needed to back his back-to-nature philosophy. Madava Farms features beaver ponds, trout-breeding streams and forest paths maintained for visitor tours. Consultants from Cornell and the Cary Institute monitor the ecosystem. A full-time forester supervises an annual harvesting of 5% of the maple tree canopy to maximize growth.
INDUSTRIALIZING THE SUGAR SHACK
The Crown Maple sugarhouse, where the syrup is made, is far from a humble shack in the woods. The 27,000-square-foot grand structure houses the equipment, a newly opened café, a store selling everything from maple syrup to books and T-shirts and a special events dining room reserved for visiting chefs and those excited to use the Crown Maple product in their cooking. The building design marries the rough-hewn with the upscale. The mammoth machines, from the 9,200-gallon sap vats to the reverse osmosis and evaporator machines, glisten in well-lit, pristine rooms. This level of sanitation, Turner insisted, is a departure from industry norms, which oftentimes consist of makeshift, often ramshackle, operations of questionable safety and quality.
“If you saw where a lot of [competitor] syrup’s produced, you wouldn’t eat it.”
Surpassing industry standards is Turner’s mission. While most companies remove up to 45% of water from sap, Crown Maple’s custommade reverse osmosis machines extract up to 75% of water as well as bacteria and cellulose material. This results in a greater concentrated flavor and retention of minerals and antioxidants to the syrup, produced in Grade A light, medium and dark, as well as Grade B.
Other syrup bottlers cut corners, Turner says, blending good, average and poor-quality grades “and sell it like it’s a high-grade syrup. That goes on a lot.” Turner has several barrels of syrup in the warehouse that failed the quality taste test, because the sap was tapped late in the season. He is investigating the possibility of distilling it into rum.
At the height of the season, each maple tree can yield up to a gallon of sap per day. Depending on the weather, a tapping season can last four to seven weeks, starting as early as January and as late as April. To ensure Crown Maple’s product quality, Turner insists that the tree-to-bottle journey is a highly expedited one. The industry average has sap sitting in containers for two days before processing. At Crown Maple, the waiting period is between six and 12 hours. “If it sits around for a couple of days,” says Crown Maple spokesperson Sherri Darocha, “it builds up yeast and other bioactivity in the raw sap.” Boiling will banish foreign elements and pathogens, but will also reduce the nutritional and mineral content of the syrup.
Ecological and sustainable practices are implemented throughout the process: the maple trees are not fitted with spigots and buckets. Instead, a nonreactive plastic polymer tube carries sap to the collection house. The tubes measure five-sixteenths of an inch, the diameter of a No. 2 pencil. Thus, holes close up quicker between tapping seasons, reducing tree infection. Water extracted from the sap is used for watering the property gardens and cleaning the machinery rooms. The reverse osmosis machines obviate the need for boiling at the start, saving fuel. Conventional burners typically require a gallon of fuel to produce a gallon of syrup; Crown’s three-stage evaporator process uses half a gallon for the same yield, heating the sap to 220 degrees at which point it becomes true syrup.
A conundrum of the Crown Maple sustainability credo is that green measures are initially expensive. Crown operations represent “too much of a capital outlay for most producers,” Turner says. But the high-volume operations warrant the incurred costs.
To better understand how the Crown Maple operation compares to other regional maple syrup producers, it’s helpful to look at Hummingbird Ranch in Staatsburg, which Rich and Debbie Focht began in 2002 after two decades of casual mapling. They tap about 3,000 trees over an acre and a half. ”A hobby,” says Debbie Focht, “has become a full-time obsession.”
Hummingbird’s 12-by-40-foot sugarhouse produces between 4,000 to 5,000 gallons annually. The Fochts cannot afford a reverse osmosis machine; so all sap is boiled in the evaporator, requiring six gallons of fuel for every two gallons of sap.
When maple trees bud at the end of the tapping season, the sap turns bitter and affects the syrup. But the Fochts are not dismayed. They “sell the inferior stuff ” to a large Vermont-based leading independent supplier of pure and organic maple syrup and maple sugar products. This syrup ends up in mainstream products, Rich Focht says, while their premium syrup is sold locally in New York.
ALL FOR MAPLE, AND MAPLE FOR ALL
By raising the bar in various ways, Crown Maple may well benefit the entire industry of large as well as small local producers, like the Fochts. The effort involves aspects beyond production capacity and sustainable methodology. Crown Maple also wants to educate. To that end, it has increased its market presence by promoting maple syrup as a versatile cooking ingredient.
“Maple [syrup], like wine, is affected by temperature and terroir,” says Darocha. Syrups processed on different days, effected by fluctuations in temperature, will have different tastes and flavor notes.
Crown marketing team member Nathan Woden, is a former sommelier at Thomas Keller’s celebrated Per Se. Woden routinely visits chefs in high-profile bistros across the country, encouraging them to integrate Crown Maple products into their creations. These restaurants include Manhattan’s Colicchio & Sons, Eleven Madison Park, Le Bernardin and Momofuku and Hudson Valley establishments Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Castle on the Hudson and Crabtree’s Kittle House.
“Each type of syrup has its own use in food—similar to wine,” Turner says. “My hope is that one day [we] can teach people to match certain syrups with certain foods.”
On the Dover Plains premises, a series of maple-inspired dinners, desserts and cocktails are rolled out for special dinners, created by chef Jacob Griffin, a graduate of the Culinary Industry of America. Griffin also creates seasonal menus for the Farm Stand Café where visitors can lunch. The adjacent store sells all Crown Maple products, as well as granola and chocolate that include Crown syrup.
The culinary component is just one more part of a large vision. “Crown Maple is built for growth,” says spokesperson Darocha, referring to the processing rooms that are barely filled by machinery. “The building is built to be the largest maple processing facility in the world.”
Last season, Madava Farms installed 23,000 taps in 30,000 trees. This year, there will be 40,000 taps in 40,000 trees, yielding an estimated 18,000 gallons of maple syrup. Turner is looking at purchasing or leasing maple trees on additional property in the region.
However, the new land would have to be situated within five hours of Dover Plains to guarantee that the sap can reach the main plant and be processed on the same day.
Turner noted that the largest maple syrup producer in the world, based in Canada, gathers sap annually from about 200,000 taps. Crown Maple has larger aspirations with plans for 400,000 taps. For all his business acumen, Robb Turner is still at the mercy of nature; a warm winter last year diminished sap yields significantly, because the cold nights and warm days needed to stimulate sap runs did not occur. Despite global warming patterns, meteorologists are predicting a lustier winter this year.
Turner continues to work with colleagues at Cornell Cooperative on advances in sap gathering. “This industry is so behind on technology. It’s not even close to where it could go, and we have a lot of ideas.” Currently, he is developing an improved sap purification system. While research is ongoing, Turner is enthusiastic.
“If this works the way I think it will, it’s going to be revolutionary in the industry.”
Such advancements have garnered the attention of industry colleagues, Turner says, but not necessarily their encouragement. He has fielded complaints from people who resent Crown Maple’s crusade for higher standards, citing the pressure it places on them to attain similar levels of quality.
“[B]ecause a lot of them don’t want to,” he says. “I’m finding that out the hard way.”
CROWN MAPLE SYRUP