Like many sugar makers, C.J. King began with a starter kit from Agway, which contained a copy of Rink Mann’s book “Backyard Sugarin'” and 10 spiles. Eight years later, his sugarhouse, The Maple Moose in Easton, Maine, has 1,800 taps,
wholesale accounts, a mail-order website, and a loyal following of customers who look for his distinctive logo – a moose with sap tubing tangled in its antlers.
King had some prior experience with sugaring, having watched his brother and father set a few hundred taps as he was growing up. But work on the family’s dairy farm always took precedence, so they didn’t make syrup every year.
That starter rig eventually gave way to a 2-by-6-foot evaporator and a conversion from wood to oil, which he finds far easier to maintain and more efficient and economical to run. King also constructed a new sugarhouse with a kitchen, bathroom, and a room for his reverse osmosis machine. He is installing an oil-fired 3-by-8-foot evaporator for the 2015 season, enough to handle all of the sap from the three groves he owns and the one he leases, with room for expansion in the future.
“There has definitely been a learning curve,” King said. “When I was in high school I hated science and did everything to avoid it. Now that I’ve gotten into maple, the more science you know, the easier you make it for yourself. It’s a very complex, mysterious product.”
When it comes to learning, King said his best teachers have been other sugar makers. “The second year I was sugaring, I joined the Maine Maple Producers Association, but I figured since I was just this little guy from northern Maine I wouldn’t fit in,” he said. “But the members are so forthcoming with information and help and technical advice.” Association meetings and visits to other sugarhouses have been particularly helpful, he added, because “most of them have been where you are and can help save you from a lot of wrong moves.”
He continued, “I’ve never met a sugar maker who wouldn’t help another sugar maker. People even offer to lend equipment when you break something. They’re unbelievably supportive.” He enjoys the fact that sugar makers are constantly learning, changing their operations to make them better, and trying to keep up with the industry’s rapidly changing technology. “Every time I go to a seminar or another sugarhouse I learn something, and there’s plenty more for me to learn.”
Photos courtesy of the King family, unless otherwise noted.
One feature of King’s sugarhouse is an indoor “tree” where he can show elderly or handicapped visitors what he does in the woods, as well as avoid taking groups through the mud or rain. “I can drill, tap, do everything I do in the woods right in the sugarhouse when we can’t go into the woods, and it’s a great conversation piece,” he explained. “I show people how to read tree rings, how to drill taps, what the antique spiles looked like. Everybody learns something when they come to our place.” Visitors are as impressed with newer innovations as they are with the traditional practices he shows them, King noted, like using water from the reverse osmosis machine to clean equipment, or how much more efficient the oil-fired evaporator is.
Of course, it’s the treats that get people in the door. “We’re very fussy on flavor,” he said. “Nothing goes out without being taste tested, and if my family won’t eat it, we won’t sell it.” Along with syrup, King makes maple cream, candy, sugar and lollipops. His wife makes maple granola, and they serve maple cotton candy to visitors. “We try to add a new product every year,” he said. They sell quite a bit of product right from the sugarhouse, some through wholesale accounts, and some at fairs and craft shows around the state.
Three of King’s sugar bushes are on vacuum. Two of these are connected to a vacuum pump at the sugarhouse with 1,000 feet of tubing leading underground in two different directions, including under the road to a sugar bush across the street. He built a small portable building on a car trailer to use at the leased grove, with a tank, pump and releaser inside. He credits the vacuum systems with stabilizing their production. “We’re not as reliant on Mother Nature now,” he explained. “If it’s above freezing, we’re getting sap.” The grove without vacuum averaged 5 and 3.5 gallons per tap per year over the last two years, while those on vacuum yielded 18 and 17 gallons.
He has transitioned to using check valve adapters on all of his taps, noting that they have helped reduce taphole contamination, particularly in the sugar bushes where he has sap ladders that cause backflow. “The most important thing is to put something clean in the tree each season,” King said. “I also replace the droplines, especially when the squirrels tell me I need to by chewing through them.”
Joe has caught the maple bug as well and works alongside him in the sugarhouse. Last year, Joe made an automatic draw-off for their evaporator that saved their season, according to King. Joe had pneumonia the first two weeks of the season, which left King to handle the operation alone. The addition of an automatic bottler was another great labor-saver, he said.
Mann’s book is known for its advice to spend as little as possible on a sugaring operation, but King doesn’t regret any of his purchases. He calls it a “hobby out of control” and said it’s hard to justify buying equipment at the current size of their operation. He added, “The technology is changing so rapidly that if you want to stay up with it you need to change things. And we like to have nice equipment to work with because it makes the process easier.” He estimated that his “hobby” is nearing the point where it can support itself. He’d like to increase to around 3,000 taps, but only if he can keep up. His son has young children he wants to spend time with, and King wants to “be home at a reasonable hour” after boiling during the season.