Julia Hoogasian may have one of the most enviable jobs in the maple industry. She’s the head recipe developer and confection maker at Vermont Maple Forest Products LLC in Morrisville, Vt. With syrup from 6,500 taps, the company offers an extensive line of maple confections that go well beyond the typical array.
“We started making the traditional maple candies, the hard maple drops and maple sugar cakes, but we found that we enjoy trying new recipes and new styles of candies,” Hoogasian explained. “We’ve created a maple caramel that’s one of our most popular flavors, we’re expanding our maple saltwater taffy, and our popular maple hard candies include maple chipotle, maple ginger and maple butterscotch.”
Some of the confections are made with Vermont Fancy syrup, such as the maple saltwater taffy and some of the hard candies. Others, such as the pumpkin and spice hard candy, made with pumpkin puree, require the more robust flavor of Vermont Grade B syrup. They craft a full array of creative maple delicacies, including maple caramel sauce and a chocolate-covered maple walnut buttercream candy, which is another dark syrup delight.(Editor’s note: Vermont has adopted new labeling standards for 2014, which will become mandatory in 2015. All will be Grade A, with additional descriptors: Golden Color with Delicate Flavor, Amber Color with Rich Flavor, Dark Color with Robust Flavor, and Very Dark Color with Strong Flavor.)
The lineup of maple confections at Vermont Maple Forest Products is vast, and new flavors are always being introduced. Although the candies have a shelf life of three months, it’s doubtful that any actually last that long – odds are that most pieces are eaten within a few days (or maybe hours or minutes) after the package has been opened.
The candies are made in small batches of 2 to 4 pounds each. They produce several batches in a variety of flavors each week. The candies are handmade, using typical kitchen candy-making equipment, not oversized industrial machines.
“Working with maple syrup as the primary sweetener is more difficult, because it tends to attract moisture from the environment, so each new recipe takes significant time to develop,” Hoogasian explained. But there is no shortage of volunteers to try out the new flavors.
Hoogasian takes the confections, as well as the maple syrup, to farmers’ markets and craft fairs around the region. They can also be ordered online from the Vermont Maple Forest Products website (http://www.vermontmapleforestproducts.com). Gift baskets, highlighting such delectable offerings as chocolate-covered maple candies, maple candy canes and lollipops, are accompanied by the main event, pure Vermont Maple Forest Products maple syrup.
While the confections are being made with standard kitchen equipment, taking the sap from tree to bottled syrup requires more modern technology. The 6,500 taps are all on vacuum tubing lines. Sap from the lines runs directly into the sugarhouse, where it’s stored in stainless steel tanks. The stored sap is boiled every evening.
A reverse osmosis (RO) machine assists with the boiling process. Hoogasian, relieved from candy-making duties, oversees both the vacuum system and the RO machine. The wood-fired evaporator is fueled exclusively by wood from the sugar bush. The stainless steel hood on the evaporator captures steam and uses it to preheat the sap, increasing the operation’s efficiency.
“This system provides a closed system to keep the sap fresh,” Hoogasian said of the sap collection and daily end-of-the-day boiling procedure. “Boiling each day during the season means the consumer is getting the freshest product possible.”
Once completed, syrup is packaged directly in stainless steel barrels. The barrels are sealed, then opened one at a time as needed to be reheated and bottled into retail pint, quart, half-gallon and gallon containers. The syrup in any given bottle comes from only one barrel. The syrup in each barrel comes from only one day’s sap processing, and all the sap is from the company’s sugar bush. Vermont Maple Forest Products promotes their harvesting, sap and syrup making as a “single-forest, small-batch” system. They also promote the wood-fired evaporator, which they feel lends a more natural taste to the final product.
“Single-forest means that we only boil the sap collected from the maple trees on our property,” Hoogasian said. “Each sugar bush has a unique terrain and water supply, and each has its own ‘terroir’ of flavor, just like fine wine, coffee beans and chocolate.”
The team at Vermont Maple Forest Products consists of individuals who come together each season to produce syrup. They tap the trees, monitor the lines and boil the sap. In addition to Hoogasian and her husband, Steve, who own the sugar bush, the team consists of two sugar makers, Adam Allen and Gene Ewen, and two other associates who help with tapping trees and fixing lines, Cori Sanders and Diane Olson. Allen, a forestry student at Paul Smith’s College, owns and operates Kingdom Timber Forestry & Logging. Sanders is interested in learning all about maple sugaring. Ewen and Olson run Happy Critters Farm and Garden outside of sugaring season.
Aside from sap collection, making the syrup and inventing all sorts of maple confections, tending the sugar bush is one of the most important aspects of the operation. The trees provide not only sap, but also wood for the evaporator and firewood sales.
“The sugar wood we use to feed the evaporator is all harvested on our property from trees that need to be thinned, blowdowns and dead trees. This also keeps the maple forest healthy, and the trees well spaced so the canopy of each tree can develop to capture the sunlight needed for healthy tree growth and optimum sugar production,” Hoogasian explained.
A source of pride is the fact that Vermont Maple Forest Products has won several awards. The company’s Dark Amber syrup received an Excellent ribbon at the 2012 Vermont Maple Festival in St. Albans, Vt. That same honor was given to the Dark Amber, Fancy and Medium Amber grades at the 2012 World Maple Festival in St. Johnsbury, Vt. The maple caramel sauce won Best of Show at the Lamoille County Field Days Maple Competition last summer, and the maple sugar cakes took Best of Class at the 2014 Vermont Farm Show.
Whenever the sap runs, the team at Vermont Maple Forest Products works to produce the best maple syrup possible and to cook up sweet maple confections, satisfying their customers’ maple cravings year-round.
The author is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey. Comment or question? Visithttp://www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.