Farmers vow the sap will rise again

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Collection tubes were heavily damaged by fallen trees during Superstorm Sandy and have yet to be repaired. (Photo by Mark Czajkowski.)

Charlie Katzenbach said the goats at the farm nearly escaped during the Superstorm Sandy. One of her first tasks was securing the animals and fixing their enclosure. (Photo by Mark Czajkowski.)

Couple rebuilds Sweet Sourland Farm after Superstorm Sandy

By Anna Cunningham

2013 will go down as a great year for maple syrup making. From Canada to West Virginia, warm days and cold nights stirred trees to early action, giving sap collectors the kind of long and bountiful season they hadn’t had in 2012.

At Hopewell’s Sweet Sourland Farms, the last three months of winter should have seen Bru and Charlie Katzenbach prepping, tapping, collecting, boiling, bottling and selling gallons of sweet, mineral-rich syrup, amber fluid that local fans prize far more for its astonishingly complex taste of rich caramel with hints of its wood-fired origins, than for being a very uncommon “Jersey fresh” product.

But this year, because of damage from October’s Superstorm Sandy, for the first time in 23 seasons, instead of pine boards crackling in the firebox, hot sap hissing in the steel evaporator, and clouds of sweet-smelling steam rising to the rafters, the split logs are untouched, the storage tank is empty, the sugarhouse quiet and cold.

“Sandy’s really make it very hard on me. When I went down to the woods and I saw the damage that was done, I just cried,” said Charlie Katzenbach. The couple estimates that 100 trees fell on their 26-acre property during the storm. That means instead of “sugaring,” this year the Katzenbachs will be clearing trees and repairing the downed sap collection system of tubing lines that stretch more than a mile among nearly 200 sugar maple trees.

Every year, Sweet Sourland Farms’ syrup is eagerly awaited by local families, fans and even professional purveyors of fresh, fabulous food.

“Their syrup is amazing. Full-flavored, and it couldn’t be more special that it’s from right here in New Jersey,” said Gab Carbone of Princeton’s The Bent Spoon ice cream shop.

The owners of Milford’s award-winning Tassot Apiaries were so taken with the syrup that they sell it on the Katzenbach’s behalf. Said Bea Tassot, “We can’t cope with the demand. We’ve never had enough. People are amazed by the quality of that syrup.”

Even in a normal year, making the sweet solution is hard work for the Katzenbach’s small family operation. Bottling just eight pints of syrup requires collecting 40 gallons of sugar maple sap and steaming away its water content. Since the sap is 98 percent water, a whole lot of wood-fired boiling is needed. Sweet Sourland Farms used to average about 20 gallons of syrup each season. But with a new vacuum tubing system put in place three years ago, output increased to as much as 45 gallons.

Repairing the tubing system will be difficult, but there is a bright spot on the Katzenbach’s horizon. The farm has been working with the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) since 2007. The program has helped with financial assistance and free engineering for energy-efficiency, erosion control, forest improvement and pasture management projects. Most recently, the NRCS awarded the farm a grant to help pay for a machine that could potentially double their production by cutting sap boiling time in half.

Charlie said the Katzenbachs just received a grant to put in a reverse osmosis machine. Over the course of this year, not only do they hope to be back producing with sugar maples, but they hope to be able to increase the supply and tap red maples as well. The red maples give perfectly good sap; the problem is it’s only 1 percent sugar. So instead of taking 30 to 40 gallons, it takes 60 to 80 gallons to boil off for every one gallon of syrup. The farm offers two other products: goats and lumber; neither of which demands as much time as the syrup. But Charlie’s first priority has always been creating quilt-like, oil on glass artworks that have been exhibited in galleries throughout the Northeast.

“People look at me and say ‘are you sure you want to do this, put yourself through setting all of this stuff up again?’ It’s going to take me all summer and I don’t get to paint,” Charlie said.

Rebuilding. Paying for new equipment. Long hours collecting and boiling. No time to paint. The logical question is, why is syrup-making worth it?

Charlie answered instantly: “Have you tasted it?”

While next year looks promising, it’s this year the Katzenbachs worry about. “We’ve always had syrup at the door for 23 years, so you get people who come all the time. All you need is one year of not having it and you’re going to lose that clientele. We can’t afford that,” Charlie said.

To keep faithful fans satisfied, the Katzenbachs plan to sell syrup from colleagues in New England. “This year we’re going to bottle syrup. We will have syrup available to people. Good, high quality syrup. The only thing is it won’t be is our good, high-quality syrup,” Charlie said.

“Right. We’re going to call it Sandy Syrup!” Bru Katzenbach said.