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In March, as winter thaws and spring peepers start to make their presence known through song, maple sugaring season begins in New York! As the second-largest producer of maple syrup in the United States, New York has truly made use of our abundant Sugar Maples. With all of its maple groves, the Adirondack region accounts for nearly one-third of the state's production.
Every March, there’s also the NYS Maple Weekends, which are organized and sponsored by the New York State Maple Producers’ Association. Originating in 1995, these weekends bring out many people to the local farms and sugarmakers. It gives the public an opportunity to learn more about the sugar-making process and traditions, while also getting to meet the producers behind the maple products. It’s also a great way to taste the pure and natural food product at its freshest and be able to support local businesses.
This year, 2020, marks the 25th year of the annual event, which spans the last 2 weekends in March. Unfortunately, with the spread of COVID-19, this year’s event had to be canceled. Despite this cancellation, many of the producers are still hard at work collecting sap from the trees and working in their sugar shacks to bring us more “Adirondack Gold” (aka maple syrup).
‘Dack Fact: Did you know… it takes at least 40 gallons of pure tree sap to make just 1 gallon of maple syrup.
In recent years, I’ve gotten to know Jack Drury of Mark Twain Mapleworks out of Saranac Lake. Jack has a sugarhouse on the shores of Lower Saranac Lake. To learn a bit more about Jack’s business and making maple syrup, I hopped on the phone with Jack to ask him a few questions below.
How long have you been making maple syrup and what got you interested?
Around a decade ago, Jack and his wife, Phyliss, decided to invest in some property and bought 10 acres of land on nearby Dewey Mountain close to their house. One day while out for a walk in the woods of their new property, they realized there were a lot of maple trees throughout the forest. Realizing the potential, they installed 40 taps to test the waters - they’re now up to 400! After the unexpected passing of their son in 2012, Jack threw his energy into building their sugar shack (lovingly dubbed Bushwhack Jack’s Sugar Shack). For more information on their start-up story, check out this video that the Wild Center, located in Tupper Lake, produced through the Center for Digital Storytelling, one in a series of videos about local maple producers.
Why the name “Mark Twain” Mapleworks?
Sam Clemens (Mark Twain) spent the summer of 1901 in Saranac Lake at what is now known as the Mark Twain Camp. The Camp has been in their family since 1913 and they thought naming their maple syrup business in Twain’s honor was very appropriate. Apparently maple syrup was also one of Mark Twain’s favorite foods, so the name is doubly appropriate! The sugar shack is a short distance from the shore of Lower Saranac Lake, and in Jack’s words - it isn't hard to imagine Mark Twain and his family enjoying their stay here in the Adirondacks.
There are different methods in collecting and boiling the sap - what does your process look like?
As their number of tapped trees multiplied and they hit 200 taps, Jack started to use tubing in the sugarbush, collecting the sap on a trailer in barrels and then hauling the barrels to their sugar shack. The main sugar shack has the wood-fired evaporators/boilers and all other equipment needed to process the sap gathered from their trees into the delicious syrup end product. In 2017, a friend who used to work for the Cornell Maple Program in Lake Placid encouraged Jack to look into using culverts to cross under main roads. In getting access to the culverts, Jack was able to get 3,000 ft of tubing down through culverts, across 5 properties (he gives each property owner ½ a gallon of maple syrup as thanks) and to their house - making their system much more efficient. In 2019, Jack and Phyliss built an extension to their garage geared for maple production. The extension houses a small reverse osmosis machine that helps take the sugar content of the sap from the 2% that it comes out of the tree at and boosts it up to 8-10%. This greatly helps reduce the time needed to process the sap.
How much time are you putting in each spring to produce maple syrup?
The maple syrup season generally runs from early March to the end of April - the perfect springtime activity when the ski season is coming to an end and mud season is starting up. Jack says that the maple pre-season is his “putter” time. He and a retired friend or two put all the taps in over a 2-week period, taking their time with no rush. Once the season is in full swing, Jack notes that making maple syrup, all in all, is pretty easy; however, everything needs to be monitored very closely to ensure the best result. He says 12 hour days seem to be the norm during the height of the season. Jack also noted that he has 2 or 3 people that bring him sap from their trees and that he splits the profits with them from the sap that is produced using their contributions - a win-win all around!
Can you explain the difference between Grade A & B syrup? Do you have a preference?
Apparently there is no grade B syrup anymore! Jack explained that the darkest grade was the strongest flavor and that was generally labeled as grade B, but it was determined to be pretty arbitrary as a scale. Jack went on to make a very relatable analogy: Maple syrup is like beer - it comes in all different shades and all different flavors. All beer is good, but everyone likes some beer better than others, and it’s the same with the maple syrup! Syrup ranges from golden to dark brown in color, and the darker the syrup, the more robust the flavor. Jack says he likes all types, but he particularly enjoys the flavor brought out in the darker syrups.
Are your products available for purchase online? Sell locally? Farmers Market?
Mark Twain Mapleworks offers online ordering, with pre-order an option prior to the start of maple season. Jack says they’re usually sold out of syrup by the end of May or the first week of June. He also sells his syrup at the ADK Hamlets to Huts Trail Center (also a PureADK retail partner!) and the Hotel Saranac in Saranac Lake. For other info & updates, you can also visit their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/MarkTwainMapleWorks/
All in all, Jack says the moral of the maple story is that sugaring is a labor of love. Many hours are spent creating the product between Jack, Phyliss (who helps with the syrup and ensures that Jack remains well-fed throughout his long days at the shack), and their friends that bring them sap.
Since we’re in a time where it’s best to stay home and stay local to your community, now’s a great opportunity to support local maple syrup producers by shopping online. You can find a list of Upstate NY producers and their contact info/websites on NYSMaple.com. You can also check with producers in your area to see if they offer local delivery of pick-ups.