Local Residents Know The Sweetest Secret: Maple Syrup
What can sweeten any food, drink, or occasion with friends and family? According to many Newtown residents, the answer is natural maple syrup. From local hobbyists to established companies, people all over town are branching off and making their own specially-crafted maple syrup.
Anyone that has a maple tree on their property can begin their journey becoming a sugarmaker. To unlock mother nature's secret sweetener all that is needed are a few simple tools.
For those whose only experience finding maple syrup is walking down the supermarket aisle and placing a bottle in the carriage, it might seem surreal that it is possible to create the tasty treat in their own backyards.
Sugaring season varies depending on weather conditions, but can last from January to March in Newtown. Temperatures need to be consistently below freezing at night and above freezing in the daytime to have the sap running through the trees.
After selecting the mature trees that will be tapped, identifying the largest root or limb of the tree will help indicate where to drill a hole in the trunk. The sap that runs through the tree is what causes the buds to develop, which means the tree should be tapped before any buds form.
A spout can be inserted in the hole to allow the sap to drip into a bucket attached to the tree. Once the sap is collected, it must be boiled or put in an evaporator to remove the water.
Some choose to use a "sugarhouse" or "sugarshack" (that is typically a small shed) to process many gallons of the sap at once. For roughly 40 gallons of sap retrieved, it is estimated that it makes a gallon of maple syrup.
The sugar season may be short, and the labor may be extensive, but the results are always delicious.
After receiving three buckets and three styles (the inserts that go into a tree) as a gift, Newtown resident Steve Tomasiewicz decided to put them to use and start making maple syrup for the first time, last year.
Excited for his new hobby, he created his own sugarshack nestled among the maple trees in his front yard. Both years he has tapped three trees on his property, and this year collected more than 60 gallons of sap throughout February and March.
"I had an old wood stove that I put out in the shed and ordered a stainless-steel tray that's made specifically for making syrup. It holds about 20 gallons, so I'll spend the better part of the weekend boiling off the sap," Mr Tomasiewicz said. "You have to be patient. It takes a long time."
Still, the results are worth it, he assures. All his grandchildren - ages 4, 3, 2, and 1 - enjoy being around the maple syrup as it is made, and even his son-in-law has begun making his own by using a fire-pit at his home.
A Farm Operation
What do you do when you purchase land filled with maple trees? You make maple syrup, of course.
When husband and wife duo Peter and Clare Harrison bought a 33-acre property on Mount Nebo Road four years ago, they did not quite know what they had gotten themselves into. The "unusual property," as Ms Harrison describes it, went untouched for some time, but came with a considerable number of maple trees. So, the first thing they did decided to do was tap the trees.
"We'd never done it before, but we thought, 'Heck, why not?'"
The two operate under the label of Windover Farm and focus on having a natural outlook for all that they do at the farm. They do not add any flavoring to their maple syrup and make it on a small enough scale that they do not use tubes to collect the sap.
"We use the old-fashioned buckets, and we tap between 40 and 50 taps every year. My husband is always trying to increase the number of taps, and I am always trying to keep it stable because guess who does the collecting," Ms Harrison said with a laugh.
"It's hard work, it's long work, but it is a relatively short season," Ms Harrison added. "We've really enjoyed it."
After collecting the sap throughout the week, Ms Harrison boils it on the weekends using an evaporator in their small sugarshack.
"There are few things better than sitting in the sugarshack with the doors open and the sun shining through on a cold day, but you're right next to the evaporator and the whole sugarshack just smells of syrup," Ms Harrison said.
Windover Farm produces about 120 bottles a year and is sold at the couple's house during horse events and during the annual Earth Day Festival in Newtown.
Ms Harrison says that those interested in embarking on making maple syrup should consider if they want to sell it or not, because it can drastically affect the process.
"If you want to make it to sell it and want to sell it in attractive glass bottles, then know the filtering process is really tedious and you waste a lot," she explained. "If you want to make some for family, then it is a really cool, fun thing to do that gets you close to the seasons… it's really magical."
Local resident Dave Ackert's name is synonymous with maple syrup in town. As the self-proclaimed "founder, owner, and chief bottle washer" of Maple Craft Foods, he has turned his idea of delivering a healthy sugar alternative into a full-scale operation.
It all started 14 years ago, when his family bought a house in Vermont, and he discovered being out in nature had a tremendous effect on his daughter. When she became enthralled with the outdoors around them, Mr Ackert decided to tap a maple tree on the property and boiled the sap on their back porch. The activity allowed his family to connect with nature and enjoy the sweet benefits of their work.
Years later, back home in Newtown, he noticed how when the neighborhood children would come over to swim in the summer, that the ice cream truck would always come by at dinnertime but never had any healthy options.
He decided to freeze some watermelon juice into ice pops as an alternative treat, but the children were not thrilled - that was until he decided to combine it with some maple syrup he had in the house. The creation became known as Fruple Ice Pops, the first product he made for his company, Maple Crafts Food.
"I left the corporate world to focus on growing this natural food business," said Mr Ackert. "My next door neighbor is a package design/graphic design guru and there's an attorney down the road who both encouraged me and said they would help me go into business with this product."
Since the Sandy Hook-based business was established in 2014, Maple Craft Foods has expanded to include a full line of maple crafted syrups.
"I figured out how to use all organic fruit flavorings and combine it with organic syrup and have it taste really good," he explained. "We are really on a mission to get people to replace the artificially flavored, highly processed unhealthy sugars with maple syrup."
"There's at least 54 different antioxidants in maple syrup and they're discovering new ones every day. It has more calcium than milk, more potassium than bananas, and it's two-thirds the sucrose that sugar has. So, if you are going to sweeten something, you might as well use something natural, local, and not all that bad for you," he added.
Maple Craft Foods sources most of its maple syrup from Hidden Springs Maple Farm in Putney, Vt., to sustain the volume needed. The partnership is beneficial, because whereas Newtown's sugaring season ended about a month ago, Vermont's had a late start and its consistent weather conditions has allowed the season to keep going.
Mr Ackert says his company does make a small batch of maple syrup here in town, as well as flavor, bottle, market, and deliver the products locally. Newtown restaurants Nouveau Monde Wine Bar & Bistro, Marketplace, and Figs use his syrups; and Big Y, Caraluzzi's, and Stop & Shop also carry Maple Craft Foods products.
Ryan and Lindsay Slater are raising their four children - Madison, 9, Landon, 8, Parker, 6, and Mason, 4 - to know that not everything needs to be purchased at a store.
From maple syrup to apple sauce, jams, jellies, and pickles, Mr Slater says, "We show them how to grow, harvest, and process everything."
Growing up in New Hampshire, Mr Slater learned about maple syrup from his grandfather, who took him to sugarhouses at a young age to learn about how maple syrup is made. For the past three years, his family has been making its own maple syrup using two different methods.
"We use either the traditional spile tap, using hanging collection buckets, or [primarily] the newer smaller diameter anti-siphon spiles with drop tubing and collection pails at the base of the trees," Mr Slater explained. "I have about five of the traditional hanging bucket setups, but then utilize about 35 of the other with five-gallon buckets."
He checks the buckets daily and has collection bins at his house. Before placing the sap in the evaporator, he passes the sap through a cloth filter to remove any outdoor impurities that could have mixed in.
"Our wood-fired evaporator is made up of cinder block base with a stainless steel two-by-four-foot channeled syrup pan. We also use chafing pans on top of the pan as preheater pans, as well as two ten-gallon stainless steel pots on propane burners if we have a larger batch to run that week," Mr Slater said.
When the batch is boiled down to a few gallons, it gets filtered into a clean chafing dish and brought inside the house to monitor the temperature. When it reaches the desired temperature, they filter it once more and eventually put it in sanitized bottles.
For families and individuals interested in making their own maple syrup he advises using a wood fire setup to avoid the costliness of filling a propane tank.
"Also," he added, "you should never boil a batch inside for longer periods; your kitchen walls and ceilings will be sticky from the sugar steam."