Many places in the Hudson Valley make maple syrup. But just one, as far as we know, has been written up in a feature article in the New York Times. That would be Madava Farms in Dover Plains, which produces a brand of syrup called Crown Maple. Manhattan banker Robb Turner and his wife, Lydia, bought 800 acres of Dutchess County farmland, named it after their daughters Maddie and Ava, and then invested scads of money to create perhaps the biggest, cleanest, and greenest syrup producer in the land.
In so doing they also came up with a particularly rich, sweet, and pure syrup, which is available in three distinct flavors — light, medium, and dark amber — and has graced the tables of some of the nation’s finest restaurants. It even made an appearance at President Obama’s 2013 inaugural lunch.
Here are 10 things you should know about syrup in general, and Crown Maple in particular:
1.It takes 40 to 50 gallons of tree sap to make one gallon of syrup. “The ideal sap is only about two percent sugar,” says Jacob Griffin, executive chef at Madava Farms. “Sometimes it’s lighter than that, so you have to cook it longer.” But it takes the tree longer still — about five days on average — to produce those 40 gallons of sap.
2.Crown Maple uses a reverse-osmosis machine, which allows most of the water to evaporate from the sap without having to heat it. The traditional method — boiling the sap over a wood fire — increases the risk that the syrup will burn and turn bitter.
3.Crown Maple has a higher sugar content than most other syrups. (For the sugar geek in you, it measures 67 on the Brix scale, rather than the standard 66.)
4. Madava Farms has about 40,000 taps going into about 25,000 trees on its property. Most trees get tapped once, but mature trees — say, 80 years and older — are still growing and have more sap to give out.
5.An 80-year-old maple tree is only a teenager in human years. Maple trees can live 300 to 400 years.
Madava Farms’s sugaring system (clockwise from top left): Tubes harvest the sap; a worker taps a tree; the syrup is pumped into glass bottles
6.The taps are connected with tubes, which draw sap directly from the tree and send it to the processing plant. “We have thousands and thousands of miles of tubing, almost like the branches of a tree,” Griffin says. Using tubes rather than the old-fashioned collection buckets allows the farm to process the sap more quickly, which is both more sanitary and helps preserve the flavor. To keep track of all those tubes, Madava Farms uses GPS chips to locate and manage them.
7.New York declared the sugar maple its state tree in 1956, but the state lags behind Vermont in syrup production. The overall syrup champion, though, is the Province of Quebec, which produces close to three quarters of the world’s maple syrup supply.
8.Sap is very particular about the weather. “Yes, it’s a spring crop, but it doesn’t happen every day,” Griffin says. “The trees need freezing nights and warm days to create the conditions for the sap to push its way out of the tree.” The season could run from February through early April, “but only 20 to 25 of those days produce sap flow. You have to be completely ready, because you never know what day it will be flowing.”
9.Crown Maple is certified USDA organic. To achieve that designation, the farm created an Organic Farm Plan covering every aspect of production, including soil reports, diagrams of all facilities and equipment, sap collection techniques, results of myriad tests, and field activity logs. Then a representative from the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York Certified Organic, LLC inspected every one of the groves, tap lines, and collection houses. The USDA defines organic as “integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” It doesn’t mention taste, but that’s important, too.
10.Humans are not the only creatures who like maple. The North American squirrel gouges the bark of maple trees with its teeth and drinks the sap. They have yet to make the perfect pancake, however.
Madava Farms is open to visitors on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. You can wander in the woods, take a guided tour that walks you “from tree to barrel,” enjoy an artisanal lunch at the Farm Stand CafeÌ, or attend a special event. Learn more at crownmaple.com/visit-madava-farms, or call 845-877-0640.
There are dozens of other places offering maple sugaring tours throughout the month of March. Here are some of our favorites:
Frost Valley YMCA, Claryville
Visitors learn to identify a sugar maple tree, how the trees grow and store sap, and how that sap is collected and becomes syrup; they can also tour the maple sugar house. March 22-23 & 29-30. Tours every half hour. 845-985-2291; www.frostvalley.org
Hummingbird Ranch at Hahn Farm, Staatsburg
Hahn Farm hosts the Hummingbird Ranch for its annual Maple Pancake Breakfast on March 29-30. The event includes hay and pony rides, line dancing, yarn-spinning and maple sugar-making demonstrations, and — of course — a pancake breakfast complete with bacon, sausage, and lots of syrup. $8, $4 children ages 2-11. 845-266-0084; www.hummingbirdranch.biz
Hudson Highlands Nature Museum, Cornwall
To celebrate the opening day of its sugar tour schedule, the museum features games, crafts, and Native American storytelling in addition to offering samples of the sweet treat. Tours, which run Saturdays and Sundays through March 23, take guests through the forest and give a brief history of maple sugaring. Saturday, March 1. $10, $7 children ages 3-11. 845-534-5506; www.hhnaturemuseum.org
Ashokan Center’s Maple Fest, Olivebridge
Have a crack at tin-smithing, blacksmithing, broom-making, and tapping your own tree at this festival, which also features an all day pancake breakfast served with the center’s own syrup. After your feast, be sure to take a walk across the historic 1885 covered bridge on your way to the falls at Cathedral Gorge. March 1. Call for more information. 845-657-8333; www.ashokancenter.org
Soukup Farm, Dover Plains
This third-generation family business has made fresh maple syrup using a wood-fired evaporator for 65 years. Guests can observe the small-scale syrup-making process from start to finish and sample the three different grades of syrup produced at the farm. “We use an overgrown wood stove, three feet wide and 10 feet deep,” says owner Mark Soukup. “You put the wood in the bottom and on top you have two large flat pans. The sap runs in the back of the pan, and as it flows to the front, it runs off and makes a sugar. This is the old-school way of doing it.” The syrup is also available at the Millerton and Stormville flea markets. March 22-23 & 29-30. Call for more information. 845-264-3137
Taconic Outdoor Education Center at Fahnestock State Park, Cold Spring
Enjoy a pancake breakfast followed by a tour of Fahnestock’s maple grove and sugar shack, where sap is transformed into syrup. Guides are on hand to explain both modern and traditional ways of collecting, boiling, and producing maple syrup. March 9. $8, $6 children, under 5 free. 845-265-3773; www.nysparks.com