25,000 taps make a lot of maple syrup

The Mountain Villager
Volume V, Number 16, April 17, 1997

By Stephanie M. Urie
Mountain Villager Correspondentvillager-image-1Waterville – The quantity, quality and caliber of maple syrup flowing out of the operation at five-year-old Green Mountain maple Sugar Refining Co. here is garnering widespread recognition and respect.

Not just another sugar maker, owner Joe Russo designed state-of-the-art equipment to process the sap from his 25,000 hillside taps. A custom-engineered steam pan evaporates the clear sap into mostly fancy and medium syrup the he sells.

One day this season found Russo tending the syrup while exuberantly narrating an educational documentary for a film crew, posing for photographs for national gourmet magazine and talking with two journalists.

Such acclaim is due to the care Russo has invested in his crop. George Cook University of Vermont Extension Service maple specialist, said, “This is probably the most modern and up-to-date sugaring operation in the area. The technology and safety features are seven steps ahead of the rest of us.”

“To make quality of a large quantity is difficult,” Russo said. “But, I’ve been able to supersede my expectations because of the speed with which the sap goes through [the process].”

Russo engineered a custom evaporator that measures 10-feet by 8-feet by 2-feet. David Albright, of Jeffersonville constructed the innards of the behemoth. The steam pan has no arch and, hence, is without a direct fire underneath. Instead, the pan is fired by a colossal oil burner that creates steam that threads its way through hundreds of feet of copper tubing – while ingesting 75 gallons of fuel an hour. “Just think, a gourmet food product from the forest without harvesting timber,” said Russo. The sap flows in plastic tubing from the trees downhill into a holding tank, then runs by 16 ultraviolet light bulbs which purify it, killing bacteria. This contributes the quality and grade of his syrup. A reverse-osmosis machine draws water away from the sap and the resulting sugar water is pre-warmed to 140 degrees.

From time to time the sap plunges into the steam pan, boils over 10 seconds of steam-filled copper tubing until it flows out the automatic take-off, ready for pancakes, only 12 seconds have elapsed.

“Joe Russo is taking maple syrup production to new standards in gathering efficiency, filtering and quality, said Jeff Green of Sugar Man of Hardwick.

Russo and his right-hand man, Adam Phelps, attend the fully automated system – but, he hires a crew of 12 men for three weeks to tap his 700-acre mountainside. Russo averages a production of 40 to 77 gallons of syrup an hour as he processes 25,000 gallons of sap per day. His record for speed stands at 99 gallons of syrup in 90 minutes. He averages 10 barrels a day – with 33.75 gallons per barrel.

His powerful system operates at 1,000 amps – when starting it the first morning, a power surge blew out electrical power in Belvedere for seven hours.

Besides the large-scale production, indoor plumbing and ingenuity makes this operation different from the average sugar house. Fixtures and taste-testing utensils are washed in stainless steel sinks. A bathroom, that the usual outhouse accommodates the calls of nature. Shelves are lined with deftly organized clear plastic containers to keep the miscellaneous minutia tidy.

The meticulous environment in which he works is a reflection of a background in food service. A 1980 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Russo received degrees in culinary arts and baking and pastry arts.

“A clean environment produces a better quality product,” said Russo. To that end, he breaks the mammoth steam pan apart between sap runs to clean it thoroughly with sanitizing 200-degree water, even after a 17-hour day of boiling.

Russo’s love of the maple syrup began when he was a 13-year old student in New York. The state Board of Education granted him 14 weeks off, mid-winter, to run his own sugaring operation. He did this for three years – while being tutored – until the sugar house got struck by lightning.

He carried his harvest of sap out of the woods on a yoke. With his 400 taps, he made syrup he sold to earn money for college and a car.

After sugaring ends Russo leaves the woods of New England, and travels the world aboard a luxury liner as a hotel manager for Holland America Cruise Lines. In charge of 500 employees, he also manages food, hospitality, lodging and entertainment.

He said that his two métiers actually complement each other. One, he says, takes him all over the world and demands that he entertain thousands of people while the other allows him to work with nature in near solitude.

His prediction for this year’s belated season? “The calendar says were late but the trees don’t think so,” said Russo. He said he expects a “wonderful crop.”