Crown Maple at Madava Farms is physically located in Duchess County, New York, about 90 minutes north of Manhattan. But philosophically, it sits squarely at the intersection of the food world’s obsession with artisanal products, an engineer’s love of precision technology, and high-end marketing prowess.
The romance of foraging sap from trees rooted in an organic (certified organic, in fact) snow-packed setting just as winter thinks about turning into spring still holds at Crown Maple. Yet, this outfit has upped the ante for its locally sourced sweetener with a multimillion-dollar operation that maintains quality control and traceability from tap to table and an extensive chefy clientele ready and willing to use it across their New York City menus.
“Maple syrup is basically a forage crop,” said Crown Maple CEO Compton Chase-Lansdale.
It’s a popular product, certainly, but there is no brand in the maple industry that is akin to Coke in the soda realm or Kleenex in the facial tissue market. Chase-Lansdale talks of myriad partnerships (almond milk and maple syrup, spice mixes and maple sugar, chocolate and maple syrup, for example) that he hopes will propel the Crown Maple brand up from the breakfast table into the wider world of savory and sweet foods.
Back to the farm
Knowing little more about maple syrup than its affiliation with pancakes back in 2007, Robb Turner purchased more than 800 acres of pretty, pristine land in Dover Plains with a small log cabin as a family retreat. Turner, who runs a private equity firm in New York within the energy sector, grew up on a farm northern Illinois and wanted his daughters to get more exposure to the great outdoors than their suburban New Jersey lifestyle was offering.
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What Turner and his wife, Lydia, hadn’t realized at the time was they had purchased part of the Taconic Hardwood Forest, a unique terroir that extends from the eastern edge of New York’s mid-Hudson Valley up into central western Vermont. It was chock full of mature sugar and red maple trees. Turner was schooled about the sugar bush while walking the property, which hadn’t been farmed or even cleared since the Civil War era, with neighbors whose families had used the land for recreational purposes, like trout fishing, for generations.
In 2010, after Turner spent three years methodically researching time-honored traditional practices of the maple syrup industry in northeastern United States and in Canada and newfangled technology that could be applied to the process of converting 43 gallons of raw sap into 1 gallon of syrup, Crown Maple at Madava Farms was born. The name of the farm is a mashup of Robb and Lydia’s two daughters’ names – Madeline and Ava.
The Crown Maple syrup operation itself, developed with the help of foresters, scientists and engineers, includes 20,000 trees, 50,000 taps and 200 miles of plastic tubing that carries sap to three pump houses with the help of a vacuum system. A field team of eight men maintain that vacuum at 27 inches mercury with the help of sensors that establish a Bluetooth connection to monitoring applications on their handheld Android devices. At a rate comparable to the flow of five bathtub spigots going full bore, the sap flows down the hill from the pump houses into four, 9,300-gallon tanks. Once inside the 27,000-square-foot sugar house that resembles a Napa Valley winery facility in terms of function and style, the sap gets purified with the help of a Dissolved Air Flotation (DAF) machine, the only one of its kind in operation in the U.S. maple industry. This apparatus shoots microbubbles into the sap to which impurities attach themselves, get floated to the top and are scraped off via a mechanical arm.
The purified sap then courses into a reverse osmosis machine, which pulls out about half of the sap’s water content, a necessary step when working with this scale, explains Tyge Rugenstein, Crown Maple’s chief operating officer who also holds a Ph.D. in decision sciences and engineering systems/operations research from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The evaporator then boils the sap at 217 F until the sugar content of the syrup rests at 68 Brix. Then it’s pumped into 55 -gallon barrels — some of those lent to Crown Maple from bourbon and rum makers in order to impart those flavors into the syrup for specialty products. The barrels get tapped one at a time in the bottling room where they are divided into custom-made Italian glass bottles that resemble small batch whiskey flagons as opposed to run of the mill plastic jugs.
The 12-ounce bottles — marked under the newly adopted national maple grades of Light Amber, Medium Amber, Dark Amber and Extra Dark — are sold for between $16.95 and $30.95 online and in specialty grocers mostly east of the Mississippi River; used in the kitchens and cocktail shakers at Eleven Madison Park, Left Bank, Le Bernardin and Per Se, to name a few; sold in the cafe on the front of the sugar house; and doled out in the tasting room, the walls of which are lined with glossy maple wood, some of it showing the holes of taps of the past.
Mother Nature’s in charge
Watching the syrup being transformed — a process that is open to the public on weekends when the sap flows through early April — at this level is a study in nature meeting technology. Rugenstein argues that meeting only affects the taste of the end product in a beneficial way.
“We control the quality of the product at every step in the process,” said Rugenstein, explaining their process is much like small artisans who take the sap, make the syrup themselves, and sell it directly to the customer. But much of the pure maple syrup sold on a wider scale is packed and distributed by consolidators who blend syrups of varying quality from many producers into a single product.
What even this well-funded operation can’t control, though, is Mother Nature: The sap needs warm days and freezing nights to keep flowing. It is the trees that decide how much of each grade of syrup in which quantities each year. And once the trees start to bud, the season is over.
“In that regard, we are in the same boat as everyone else,” Rugenstein said.
The jury is still out on whether or not the 2015 sugaring season will be a boom or bust, but Crown Maple is technologically ready to make the most of whatever comes.
Maple Potato Leek Soup
Crown Maple at Madava Farms in upstate New York employs two chefs to develop recipes that use maple syrup in a variety of savory ways. This soup is one of them.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
2 tablespoons butter
3 large leeks, white parts and light green parts only, cleaned and chopped
6 cups chicken or turkey stock
1 1/2 pounds peeled and chopped russet potatoes (about 3 large)
1/2 cup dark maple syrup
1 cup milk
1 cup cream
Salt and white pepper to taste
Chopped chives and crispy bacon for garnish (optional)
1. Melt butter in an 8-quart pot over medium heat. Add leeks and cook gently until they are tender but not browned (about 5 to 7 minutes).
2. Add chicken stock and potatoes to pot. Bring to a simmer and cook potatoes until they are tender (about 20 minutes).
3. Add syrup and milk. Warm the mixture, but do not let it boil. Use a stick blender to puree the soup. Stir in cream.
4. Season with salt and white pepper. Serve hot with garnishes, if using.
Main photo: Bottles of maple syrup from Crown Maple at Madava Farms. Credit: Copyright 2015 Christine B. Rudalevige