BRATTLEBORO — Ben is 32 years old and the sixth generation to work at the Robb Farm. In 1907 his family moved to Ames Hill in West Brattleboro and began a farming operation. For many years the land supported a dairy herd, but in 2011 the family shifted its emphasis from milk production to raising beef and focusing on its maple sugar operation.
Recently Brattleboro Area Middle School students interviewed Ben Robb about the family maple sugar business. Here are some excerpts...
How did your family get started in the maple sugar business? “The way Grandpa tells it, we moved from Guilford to our current place in West Brattleboro and, at the time, the land was being logged. My Great Great Grandfather told the logger to cut down anything that was not a maple tree. So all of the maple trees are naturally growing on the property. They were not planted by us; we have gone out in the woods and found them.”
Have there been changes in your maple sugar operation? “Our operation now consists of about 5,500 taps. That’s each line that goes up and into a tree. Each tree will be tapped anywhere from one to three, sometimes even four times if the tree is super healthy. Right now we’re running off a vacuum system so it brings all the sap to us. Back in the day, before we sold the dairy cows and expanded our operation, we were running gravity lines and buckets. I would not want to be doing 5,500 taps with gravity lines and buckets. That would be a lot of work. We do have a reverse osmosis unit as well. The sap passes through the reverse osmosis once and it retains its flavor even though we don’t have to cook it as long. This allows us to be more efficient.
“We also have a hooded evaporator, which is much more ‘New School.’ Before the efficient new evaporator we used to go through 60 or 65 cord of wood. Now we expect to go through 25 or 30, depending on how long the season is. Those have been the big changes.”
What is reverse osmosis? “Reverse osmosis in the making of maple syrup is when water is removed from the sap before boiling. The concept is really cool. They even have these things on aircraft carriers as well. That’s where they get their water from. They take in sea water and pass it through reverse osmosis. They take out all of the salt and are left with water to be used on the ship.”
What is a typical boiling day like? “That’s a tricky question. It really depends on Mother Nature. We could be boiling three to four hours or less, depending on the sap run, but my Dad has also put in days where he has gotten up at 4 o’clock in the morning to begin boiling and hasn’t stopped until 10 o’clock at night.”
What are the steps necessary to make syrup? “It’s a lot of work. Forty gallons of sap for one gallon of maple syrup. You have to collect the sap, boil it, grade it, package it, and market it. We have 5,500 taps. When we are tapping trees I walk up and down the hills about 12 miles a day.
“At the beginning of the season, I drill a hole and lightly hammer a tap into a tree. Tubing needs to be run and, when the season begins, we’ll turn the vacuum system on and the sap will flow to us. The sap will go into a tank that is then pumped into the 3,700 gallon tank at the sugarhouse. The tank is so big that I could swim in it. The sap is then passed through the reverse osmosis once and then it will go into the tank above the evaporator. That tank continuously feeds the system and as the sap runs through the evaporator it boils off into syrup. Once the syrup reaches a certain temperature then the evaporator automatically takes a draw sample and we use the hydrometer, which looks like a giant cartoon thermometer, to test the density of the syrup. The hydrometer is dropped into the sample and if it floats to the red line then we know it’s the good stuff and we filter it after that.”
Do you sell your products to people from outside Vermont? “Oh yeah! We’ve even shipped some of our products to China. Early on, when we first got our website I was probably about your age and my Grandmother thought it would be a really cool geography lesson if we put a map on a board and placed pins from where our online customers were located. The map quickly got overwhelmed with pins everywhere. All over the United States and Canada, and we have friends in Europe that we ship maple syrup to as well.”
Can you explain a bit about the trees?“It takes about 40 years for a maple tree to reach maturity. We will put one tap in a 40-year-old tree. When we look at trees we are focusing on the canopy. We’ll notice whether the canopy is crowded or if it has a big, healthy canopy with plenty of room around it. We’ll also take into account the diameter of the tree. These factors will determine how many taps we place in a tree. We don’t want to over-tap trees because we don’t want to hurt the trees. They’ve been with us a long time.
“We tap about 2,000 trees. Me and my Dad are trained up and we can walk the woods and tell maple trees pretty easily. Maple trees can be hard to tell, especially when there’s no leaves on them, but you can tell by the bark. There’s a bunch of different maple trees, there’s soft maples, red maples, sugar maples but if you look at the sugar maple bark it’s usually a little flakier and almost looks like the color of a rock. It looks gray, like many of the rock walls you’ll find around Vermont. The branches will also help. Different trees will have different branch patterns. Sugar maples have a very distinct branch pattern. It almost looks like electricity.
“All trees do the same thing that sugar maples do. They store sugars in their trunk and root systems and then in the springtime they’ll bring those sugars up to their branches so they can grow new leaves. Sugar maples have a high sugar content and a desirable flavor. Sometimes people will also tap white birch trees and produce sugar from that.”
What is your favorite maple product? “This is a tough question! I think my favorite is maple sugar. I’m a big coffee person and a little maple sugar in the coffee adds a wonderful flavor. I also really like maple candy. You know how chocolate melts in your mouth, it’s like that except it’s a little more granular and really smooth.”
Would you talk about the different grades of maple syrup? “Sugar content determines the grade of maple syrup. Usually in the beginning of the season we make really light syrup. It used to be called ‘Fancy,’ but now it’s called ‘Golden Delicate.’ As the sugar content goes down during the season, it takes longer to boil so the maple syrup gets darker and it gets more maple flavor. If you visit the sugarhouse you will see us holding up a sample to the light so we can grade it.
“Vermont used to have its own grading system. Now it’s standardized across the United States and into Canada because everyone wants the quality of Vermont Maple Syrup.
“The grade of maple syrup you might like is based upon your personal preference. I would say the ‘Golden Delicate’ is probably most liked by customers, but it’s probably because it used to be called ‘Fancy’ and everyone wants to be fancy. I prefer the amber, which is medium grade, and my grandfather prefers the dark, rich stuff.”
What are your favorite maple recipes? “My Mom makes a killer apple pie and she uses maple syrup. My Grandmother makes amazing baked beans and she uses maple syrup in the beans as well. Anything you could possibly think of that uses a sweetener can benefit from maple sugar.”
What is your favorite part of the maple syrup process? “It’s nice to be out in the woods. It’s not so true when there’s a lot of snow on the ground, six feet of snow can be tough, but I also like being in the sugarhouse during boiling. The room is alive. There’s moisture dripping from the ceiling, it’s loud, there’s the rich smell of maple and the comforting warmth of the wood fire. Plus, my family comes to the sugarhouse and they bring food. It’s a family affair.”