Maple syrup, the Vermont delicacy dates back hundreds of years when Native Americans first discovered the sap flowing from Sugar Maple trees and boiled it into the sweet caramel syrup we know and love today. Vermont is the top producer of maple syrup in the United States with a share of 40%, or over 3.5 million gallons. While many other states produce maple syrup no one does it like Vermont farmers. Vermont farmers pay careful attention to their trees as well as the land and with deep pride they create one of the most nutritious and crowd-pleasing treats on the planet.
For this month’s Producer of the Month we took a drive up to Putney and Westminster West to visit with the Cooper-Ellis family who own Hidden Springs Maple. Peter and Andy greeted us at their retail shop on Westminster Rd in Putney and toured us around their store and packing facility as well as their pump house and sugaring house a few miles up the road. Hidden Springs Maple has been a family operation since Peter and his brother Fraser began tapping trees in their back yard as little kids. Back then, they built a small sugar house with their dad and began selling syrup to people in and around Putney. Peter shared that his father would save all the money they made on syrup as kids and give them each a check at Christmas. As he grew older he realized that money could be made from the hills of Vermont. With great confidence in maple farming Fraser and Peter Cooper-Ellis purchased 400 acres in 1995. They started tapping trees and selling maple syrup in bulk to companies such as Highland Sugarworks and Butternut Mountain Farms. The first retail store to sell their syrup was the Putney Food Co-op! As their production and relationships with other farms grew they made a decision to open their own wholesale and retail business in 2010. This allowed them to sell directly to customers and co-ops as well as other retail stores.
Their retail store also has a blending, packing and shipping facility that runs year round. They pack approximately 30,000 gallons of syrup, or 700 barrels a year. About half of it comes from their own 1,000 acres with 27,000 trees and the other portion comes from neighboring farms. Depending on how the sap is flowing they may purchase maple syrup from 10-25 farms. Hidden Springs Maple purchases and packs and labels many small farms’ syrup under the Hidden Springs Maple brand. This is due to the large demand they have for their product. What does it mean for you as someone who may enjoy their syrup? You are supporting local small farms and a delicious product that the team at Hidden Springs Maple works long and hard to ensure is of the highest quality.
Speaking of quality, Peter stated they have three standards that they ensure are met with every batch of syrup. First, they prioritize utilizing maple syrup from smaller farms in order to support family farms as a way of life in Vermont. Second, they make sure their syrup is sold at a reasonable price to ensure that it is accessible to people of all income brackets. Third, great quality includes not only a rich and consistent color and proper density, but also great flavor. Traditional boiling methods used on the smaller farms is where great flavor comes from. Peter shared that they pack all of their syrup by hand to ensure that they have the highest quality end product. Larry Scott, who has worked for them since they opened this operation 8 years ago, has an amazing palate as the genius behind small batch blending. He tests flavor, color and density to ensure all of these important factors are consistent with each batch. Through taste testing, as well as color and density testing, he can ensure each batch is consistent and outstanding. Peter and Andy receive feedback across the entire country that Hidden Springs Maple Syrup is one of the most delicious, consistent and best dark maple syrups that is produced. Based on the impressive way they approach their syrup making, testing, and packing it is no surprise that they receive this feedback.
Hidden Spring’s hand packing and micro-blending approach is unlike many other large scale maple syrup packing houses in the region. The larger packing houses typically use large silos to blend large amounts of syrup of varying quality. The end result is consistent, but not necessarily exceptional syrup. Thus Peter and Andy are pleased with their approach and quality.
The maple syrup industry, including Hidden Springs Maple, would not have been able to grow at such a pace if it were not for specific technological advancements including vacuum, tree-to-tree tubing, and reverse osmosis. Less than 40 years ago Peter and Fraser were utilizing horses and buckets to move sap around. Now they have thousands of tubes that connect to their 27,000 trees and all of those tubes are connected to a vacuum system which feeds into large holding tanks in their sugar house. The tubes and vacuum allow them to maximize their production as well as ensure that bacteria growth is kept to a minimum. They will run these lines for 8-10 weeks depending on the weather. In addition, they operate multiple reverse osmosis machines. The RO systems allow them to remove 75-90% of the water from the sugar sap, reducing the time needed in the evaporator, and reducing energy consumption.
One of the best parts of our tour was to visit the sugaring house. We were able to observe their very large evaporator that transforms the sap to syrup, as well as barrels, vacuums, reverse osmosis machines and large sap holding tanks. We even saw little bottles containing the first four batches of syrup from the season.
Peter emphasized how important Fraser has been in making their business a success. From the day they purchased their land in 1995 to present day, he has been the driving force behind the bulk production side of the business. From building pump and sugaring houses to stringing tubing and managing pumps, vacuums, evaporators and so much more, Fraser has been instrumental in ensuring the farm is running smoothly. Fraser is a farmer and he cares for the land and the thousands of trees they have. It is a labor of love and without him this operation would not be feasible. During this time of year, Fraser actually lives most of his days in their sugaring house to ensure that all of their equipment is running around the clock. He can flip on a generator if needed at any point. Having the full time ability to collect sap is integral to their business.
Hidden Springs Maple is distributed throughout New England and has a large following in California, Texas, New York and Florida. Some people specifically purchase their syrup for the Master Cleanse, and others because they just absolutely love this sweet treat on pancakes, bacon, in baking and so much more. Hidden Springs Maple sell to many co-ops around the state and the Brattleboro Food Co-op is one of their biggest accounts. They love selling bulk maple syrup as it cuts down on packaging and allows for their syrup to be offered at a lower price.
What does the future hold for Hidden Springs Maple? Well, climate change is a factor. They have noticed over the past few years that the sap is running earlier in the winter as temperatures are hitting the 40’s or higher. This has not eaten into their sap yet but if temperatures rise to 70 degrees for a few days before they get 8 weeks of sap running, it could be detrimental to the industry. One of the other big threats to the maple syrup industry is invasive species such as the pear thrip and the forest caterpillar. Now that bugs can travel between countries and states more easily as well as flourishing more effectively in warmer weather, the potential for them to damage maple trees is real. These threats are not something that they see affecting them in the short term but potentially in the long term.
Growth for Hidden Springs Maple will involve tapping more trees, but also developing new efficiencies within their boiling, blending, packaging, labeling and shipping process. Peter and Andy also dream of labeling each container of syrup with the individual farm that produced the syrup. They believe that more and more consumers want to know where their food comes from and this could also be a great way to support local farms. They did mention that this next level of growth may be tricky because as they automate their systems and ramp up production, they must keep a keen eye to detail to ensure that they maintain the standards their customers have grown to trust.
Have we convinced you of the high quality yet? Try for yourself, join us for a tasting on April 20th from 11am–1pm. Also, don’t forget the Co-op Bulk Department carries Hidden Spring Maple Syrup on tap at a fantastic price every day!
By Jon Megas-Russell