B&E’s Trees Maple Syrup
We visited B&E’s Maple Syrup farm during the height of their short production season. The maple tree sap runs quickest during those few weeks in the spring when the nights drop below freezing, but the days are above freezing. PFC spoke with Bree Breckel and Eric Weninger (the B & E employed by the Trees) at the end of March. At that time, the syrup had been running for about ten days and it looked as though the season would be a good one, or at least a normal one. Bree notes that “normal” is now hard to define in terms of what to expect from the weather in Wisconsin agriculture.
B&E’s has 144 acres of land, 120 of which is forested. They have a mix of trees. The place was logged 30 or 40 years ago and most of the oak trees were taken out at that time. The maple trees came in after that.
They bought their first parcel of land in 2011 and had their first syrup to market in 2013. (Full disclosure: until 2015, Bree was employed at People’s Food Co-op. She worked at the La Crosse store for ten years. She is also the niece of Richard Frost, one of PFC—La Crosse’s earliest members.)
The trees produce sap for harvesting only during the spring thaw, which is increasingly variable in length here in the Driftless. Bree reports that, depending on the weather, they can expect 1/4 to 1/2 gallon of finished syrup from each tap (most trees have only one tap, but some larger ones may have two or even three taps).
With a business plan built on something so fickle as the Wisconsin spring, how did B&E’s get a bank loan? “Funding was really difficult,” Bree allows. “We ended up working with the Monroe County Farm Service Agency. This was the first maple syrup operation they ever funded. That made everything possible. We started with 40 acres and then added on.”
“Eric and I wanted to farm, but I didn’t want to do dairy. I can cook syrup till 6:00 in the morning, but don’t call me for milking.” The young farmers were mentored by Phil Gudgeon at Kickapoo Gold maple syrup. “That’s Kickapoo Gold’s old evaporator right there,” Bree indicates with a nod.
The farm is on a fairly steep hillside. There’s a 350-foot drop in elevation from the ridgetop sugar house to the valley floor. While this would be poor land for most farming, the steep hillside allows B&E’s to use gravity to run the syrup from the tree taps directly downhill through a system of tubing. The sap collects in large tanks at the bottom of the valley, and then it’s pumped up to the sugar house for processing.
|Dan McCarren of B&E’s Trees with sap tubing running downhill.|
As with any farm, the plants take some cultivation. Each tree is tapped before the season begins and there’s a lot of walking the woods, checking for wind and other damage. Dan McCarren, a staff member, reckons he walks up to half the property a couple times a week. The most present dangers to the operation are the numerous squirrels who insist on living in the woods and biting through the blue tubing to get at the sweet sap. It’s a living system with the trees waking up from the cold winter. The hillside is covered in blue tubing. From above, the farm must look like the blue veins of some giant’s vascular system—blue veins spread out over a hairy shoulder.
Bree notes that the most important part of their cultivation is to manage how the hill is being used. “We monitor erosion control, keep a healthy understory for invasive control. The best erosion control is a deep-rooted forest floor to hold the soil in place.”
With the change in climate and the heavier rainfalls in the region, erosion is a real concern for B&E’s. “Last summer a ton of rain came down,” Bree remembers. “Our sap collection was hit pretty hard. We lost a big 1500 gallon tank in the valley. It floated away and never came back.”
House of sugar
The sap is pumped from the bottom of the valley up to the sugar house on the ridgetop. There, the sap is put through a number of processes to reduce the water and concentrate the sugar content.
“Out of the tree, the sap is 2% sugar,” Bree says. “We put it through a reverse osmosis process first; that gets it to 5% sugar.” From there the syrup goes through a steam-away machine, which pretreats the sap, bringing it to an even higher level of sugar percentage (or brix) before it’s cooked off even more in the flue pan.”
“We get it to 66.7% brix,” Bree says. “We have to check the finishing pan constantly. A storm front moving in can change the calibration of the machine, which in turn affects the sugar concentration.” When they’re cooking, B&E’s will cook off 280 gallons of water an hour. This sounds like a lot, but depending on the sugar content of the sap, it takes 40 to 50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
|Samples of B&E’s Trees syrup during processing.|
The finished syrup is aged for one year. Since 2013, B&E’s has worked with Central Waters Brewery of Amherst, Wisconsin, to produce a limited batch of bourbon-barrel-aged maple syrup. Central Waters supplies used bourbon barrels to B&E’s. B&E’s uses these barrels to age their syrup, giving the syrup the flavor of the smoked white oak barrels. After the year of aging, the barrels are returned to Central Waters, where the brewery makes a bourbon/maple barrel stout. Many people are made happy by this partnership.
By mid-May, barring some really unusual temperatures, the sap will no longer be running and the processing will taper off. In the off-season, Larkin (Bree’s sister and B&E’s employee) reports that the crew, “transitions into post-season time, where we undo all of our hard work from maple season. This involves pulling all the taps from the trees, moving our more fragile equipment into storage, and generally cleaning and disassembling everything for the summer.”
People’s Food Co-op has carried B&E’s Trees Maple Syrup since they started production in 2012. It’s available in both PFC stores. You can also find their syrup at other food co-ops in the upper Midwest—and the B&E’s crew can be found at farmers’ markets during the farm’s off-season. Eric notes that B&E’s Trees works only with small, independent businesses. “It’s about relationships all the way through.”