Many sugar makers keep glass sample jars from each batch of syrup they’ve made over the years, displaying them in a window to show the beautiful amber and gold shades of the different grades of syrup. Paul Zononi’s collection of samples includes a juice jar with syrup that is nearly black. It’s the first syrup he ever made – 50 years ago when he was 8 years old. “My mom saved everything,” he explains.
Zononi doesn’t remember what inspired him to tap a tree when he was a kid, but he remembers cutting a strip out of a metal can, bending and sharpening the strip into a V shape, and banging it into a tree, then hanging a second coffee can beneath it. He boiled the sap he collected over the outside fireplace behind his parents’ house in Williamsburg, Massachusetts.
Fifty years later, his operation, Paul’s Sugar House, has 4,400 taps on pipeline, most of them on vacuum, and an energy-efficient wood-fired evaporator. And his syrup is far from black. He has a collection of blue ribbons from local fairs to show that he’s making top-quality cream, candy and syrup now. He’s still on the same land in Williamsburg, but now the sugar maple he planted in front of his sugar shack as a kid is full-grown, and a sign nearby proudly proclaims his 50 years of making syrup.
The growth in his operation didn’t happen all at once, of course. Zononi prides himself on keeping up with new technologies and improving his operation a little each year. At the beginning, he recalls, that meant upgrading from coffee cans to larger cans he got from the local school cafeteria. Then he bought buckets for 10 cents each. In the late 1960s, he was one of the first in the area to use tubing to collect sap, at a time when droplines were still 4 feet long to reach the mainlines, which were lying on the ground. Still too young for a driver’s license, he recalls moving sap in a trash can in a wheelbarrow.
In 1971, he built his first sugarhouse. The total cost of materials for the 12-by-16-foot structure was $200, thanks to lumber, windows and other materials found in family members’ barns and basements. He’s still in the same building, though he’s added on to it seven times since then, building each addition himself. When it came time to pour a cement floor for one of the additions, he remembers carrying 5-gallon buckets of cement 150 feet from the electric cement mixer to the site. The site was 200 feet from his parents’ house, he explains, but he only had a 50-foot extension cord for the mixer. “I guess I could have gotten more extension cords, but I didn’t think that way,” he adds.
While he’s certainly still thrifty, he no longer skimps on the necessities. “We’re in this for the long haul, so we invest in the right equipment,” he says. He credits the addition of a reverse osmosis machine in the early 1980s and some good-quality vacuum pumps with his most significant improvements in sap yield and syrup quality.
Zononi calls himself detail-oriented, always trying to figure out new ways to produce better syrup. How he handles his sap is key, he says. He replaces taps each year and is diligent about replacing droplines as they age and cleaning tubing at the end of every season. Most of his collection tanks are insulated to keep the sap cool before it’s brought to the sugarhouse, and he washes the collection tanks several times throughout the season. His sap moves quickly from the reverse osmosis machine to the evaporator, passing through an ultraviolet filter between the two to kill mold and bacteria. He has a spare front pan for his evaporator and rotates a clean one in for each boil.
Active sugar bush management is also important to Zononi, who spends most of his summer in the woods thinning and planning his sugar bush. After 50 years on this land, he knows many of the trees well, and he’s particularly fond of one by the stream that runs past the sugar bush. It yields sap that is consistently 6 percent sugar.
A member of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association for more than 40 years, Zononi says he has learned a great deal about sugaring thanks to the annual workshops, newsletters and subscription to the The Maple Digest. Having the opportunity to swap stories and ideas with other members is critical. He asks, “How else are you going to learn anything?” Zononi is now a board member for the association, which he says plays an important role in promoting the state’s sugaring industry.
Zononi was one of the first sugar makers in Massachusetts to sign up for the state’s Commonwealth Quality Program, a voluntary program that holds participants to industry standards of safety, sustainability, quality and locally sourced ingredients. With consumers and wholesale buyers getting more concerned about food safety, Zononi says it’s best to be the producer who can show they’ve made the effort to produce the highest-quality products.
“We already do everything to make the best syrup,” says Zononi’s wife, Serena. “Why not show it with certification?” Participation in programs like Commonwealth Quality and some of the area’s buy-local organizations has helped boost sales, she says. “It makes people notice us more. If people have to choose between one producer who is certified and another who isn’t, they’re more likely to go with the one that is, because that shows we’re serious about quality.”
Zononi says that adherence to quality has paid off in the form of loyal customers – some customers have been buying from him for more than 25 years, and many ship his maple syrup, candy and cream all around the world. “We offer tours to everyone who comes in,” he says, noting that increased interest in buying food directly from farmers has helped his business a great deal. More than 75 percent of his sales are from his sugarhouse, located on a main road near one of western Massachusetts’ larger towns in an area frequented by tourists. Serena stocks a room off the sugarhouse with Christmas items during the holiday season, which draws in more customers.
As much as Zononi appreciates the traditions and history of sugaring, it’s staying with the times and keeping up with available technology that makes his syrup so good, he says. “So many people want to make syrup the same way the generation before them did, but there’s always more to learn and more details to pay attention to.”
Winton Pitcoff is a freelance writer and coordinator of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association.