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Getting to know your neighbor: It’s a sweet deal, at Benz’s Sugar Shanty & Maple Products in East Concord

A SEAMLESS OPERATION — Larry Heim (left) and Donald Benz III, partners at Benz’s Sugar Shanty & Maple Products, are pictured in front of their evaporator, which turns raw sap into maple syrup. Photos by Jessie Owen.
SPRINGVILLE — Will she or won’t she? Maple sugar producers around the Northeast are waiting, with bated breath, to see what Mother Nature has in store for them, during the tail end of winter, which is also maple season.

East Concord’s Benz’s Sugar Shanty & Maple Products is poised to begin tapping maple trees as early as this weekend, and business partners Donald Benz III and Larry Heim said that, if the weather holds, the sap should flow strong.

As third-generation maple producers, Benz and Heim both grew up watching the maple syrup process, from start to finish. While they had been making syrup on a small scale, for quite some time, they tore down their old shanty, built a new space and officially opened their East Concord business, in 2007. Since then, this local endeavor has quadrupled in size.

Today, a larger shanty stands in place of the demolished one and the business is complete with evaporator, kitchen and maple products shop.

When the maple season officially kicks off, which Benz said ranges, each year, from late January to mid-February, the business partners and their friends and family hasten to get hundreds of trees tapped, to capture the flowing sap. That process is beginning, this weekend.

“This business is very weather-dependent,” Benz said. “What we’re looking for is weather that freezes at night and warms up to 38 – 45 degrees, during the day. You want good sunshine, to get the sap flowing.” The season will continue, until the trees bud. “The harder the ground freezes, the better you are,” Heim said. “But once the trees bud, the syrup turns bitter and it’s all downhill, from there.”

Benz’s Sugar Shanty & Maple Products rolled out 225 gallons of finished product last year, but Heim and Benz said they are aiming to produce between 500 and 600 gallons of syrup, this year. They have added new tubing and a vacuum system to their inventory, to help increase the business’s productivity.

With the help of their friends and family members, Heim and Benz tap hundreds of trees and connect the line system, which stays out, year-round.

Benz said that the tapping process does not hurt the maple trees at all and that the spout holes will heal up, before it’s time to tap again. “We use such a minimal amount of the sap inside the trees, that it has no effect on the trees,” he added.

Approximately 2,000 taps are placed, using a combination of tubing and between 250 and 300 traditional buckets, during the maple season. The buckets are collected once, per day. Via a type of funneling system, the sap gathered by the tubing runs downhill, into collection tanks in the woods.

All of the raw sap is brought back to the sugar house, where it is filtered and fed into a pre-heater on the evaporator. Inside the 80 feet of tubing, the sap is heated to boiling, before it flows through a flue pan and then out into a syrup pan.

Throughout this process, in which the sap is constantly moving, to keep it from burning, water is evaporating from the product, turning it into maple syrup. It takes 50 gallons of raw sap to produce 1 gallon of finished syrup.

The evaporator is wood-fired and the flames must be fixed every 5 – 10 minutes, when sap is being boiled. Approximately 120 gallons of sap run through the evaporator, per hour. “During the season, we are always boiling sap,” Benz said.

Workers at the sugar shanty use equipment, such as a syrup hydrometer, to ensure that the product is the correct temperature. Heim said that, since the boiling point is different, every day, each day’s barometric temperature must be taken into account, when testing the syrup. The boiling point of maple syrup is 7 degrees above that of water.

PERFECTION — Maple syrup is run through this filter press, to refine the product and remove sugar sands and other impurities, before the syrup is bottled.
The syrup is brought into the shanty’s kitchen and is put through a filter press, to strain out any sugar sands and other impurities, before it is either bottled up or poured into barrels, for bulk sale.According to Benz, the business normally produces 100 gallons of syrup for retail sale, with the rest of the product’s going to bulk.

OH SO SWEET — Pictured are some of the machines used to turn maple syrup into various products, including maple cream and maple sugar.
The syrup must go through additional processing, to produce maple cream and sugar, which are just two of the products sold in the sugar shanty’s shop. Other items include maple jelly, mustards, suckers, fluff and popcorn. The business’s store will officially welcome customers during March, from 10 a.m. – noon on Sundays, or by appointment. Benz and Heim said that they are also available for field trips and other tours.

Benz’s Sugar Shanty will join maple producers throughout New York for maple weekends on March 16 and 17 and 23 and 24, with an open house, featuring tours, free samples and between 25 and 30 products for sale. Customers will be able to tour the facilities and learn how real maple syrup is made, before purchasing maple hot dogs, milk shakes, cheese, pie, cheesecake, sugar, popcorn, cream, mustard, jelly and many other treats.

Benz and Heim have been collecting old, vintage sugar equipment, including all of Heim’s family gadgets, which they display to the public, during Maple Weekend. Benz said that the duo hopes to eventually open a museum, featuring these vintage findings.

“It’s a very family-friendly environment,” Benz said, adding that many people make Maple Weekend a tradition for the whole family. Heim added, “We get a lot of repeat customers, who come back for specific things. We have people visit, who used to be maple producers themselves. When they compliment you and take the tour and say they’ve learned things from you, that is very cool.”

Benz said that he and Heim have received “really positive” responses from the visiting public, during each of their past open houses. “People say they, by far, learn more about the process, coming through our tour, than they do anywhere else,” Benz said. “A lot of other producers are far off the beaten path, but we are very accessible.”

OH GOODY — Benz’s Sugar Shanty & Maple Products offers customers between 25 and 30 different maple-flavored items to choose from, in its shop.
The maple weekends attract customers of all ages, from all over Western New York. Benz said that most of the sugar shanty’s Maple Weekend guests come from the Northtowns and that some individuals travel from as far as an hour away, to take the tour and stock up on maple products.

“We grew up around this,” Benz said. “We’re not going to get rich off it, but it’s definitely a labor of love.”

Benz’s Sugar Shanty & Maple Products is located at 12939 Van Slyke Road in East Concord. For more information, or, to schedule a visit, call 432-2377.


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