Only recently have I discovered that great maple syrup is made right here in New Jersey and, even better, right in Hopewell Township. For years I was convinced that there was something unique to Vermont that made its syrup the only worthy one in the U.S. My first inkling otherwise came a couple of years ago in the form of the gift of a Mason jar full of excellent sweet stuff from a farm in northeastern Pennsylvania — Spring Hills Farm in Dalton. I could not believe how tasty it was, even better than most from New England and Canada.
Shortly afterwards I began hearing about a small but fine maple sugaring operation in Hopewell with the delightful name Sweet Sourland Farms. Armed with what appeared to be explicit directions off the Internet, I spent a good portion of one Sunday afternoon driving up and down Route 518 in the vicinity of Van Dyke Road, but could not find the right driveway — there was no sign — and I gave up.
Last year, newly determined, I finally tracked down Chuck Katzenbach of Sweet Sourland Farms. I could not have been more impressed with both the man and his syrup. In addition to producing maple syrup, honey, and milled lumber on his site, Katzenbach, Princeton Class of 1971, personally built the log cabin that he and his wife, Constance (“Bru”) call home, and he is an accomplished artist. His abstract paintings will be on exhibit at Artists’ Gallery in Lambertville, opening with a reception on Saturday, April 10.
Katzenbach was out boiling down the last of this year’s sap last week when I spoke with Bru. At that point it was still unknown how many gallons of his brown gold will be available. In a good year Sweet Sourland Farms’ 150 or so taps produce 20 gallons; a bad year yields as few as nine. Katzenbach boils down the sap — it takes about 40 gallons to produce one gallon of syrup — using firewood from the hundreds of pine trees planted on the property decades ago by his father, C. Buckman Katzenbach, also a Princeton alum, Class of 1934, and a surgeon who worked at Hunterdon Medical Center,
Bru reports, “We had a beautiful season that began early this year with that warm spell in January and ended with the warm weather in mid-March.” Sugar maple sap flows only when daytime temperatures are above freezing and nighttime temperatures return to below freezing. “We had wonderfully consistent weather this year,” she says.
All along the Northeast, from Quebec to Pennsylvania, the previous two winters were inauspicious, which caused the price of 100 percent maple syrup to skyrocket — that and the energy costs related to producing it. Bru says that maple syrup is the most energy-intense agricultural product of all, which is why maple syrup producers are always looking to increase efficiency. Over the last year, Chuck Katzenbach has installed a vacuum system developed by New England dairy farmers that drains the sap out more efficiently. “Chuck figured if it’s gentle enough for cows, it does no damage to the trees,” his wife says. He also installed new, smaller taps that automatically close when warm overnight temperatures come along, and built a boiler that uses steam to preheat the sap coming into the 150-gallon boiling tank, which saves energy.
Looking to the future, the Katzenbachs are replacing the pines they use for milled lumber with 100 saplings of an improved variety of sugar maple called Super Sweets. These have been developed through selective breeding over the last 30 years by RPM Ecosystems of Dryden, New York, and the Cornell Sugar Maple Research & Extension, with funds from a USDA grant. “A normal sugar maple has two percent sap,” explains Bru, “but Super Sweets yield eight percent.”
That’s a good thing, because Sweet Sourland Farms has, as she says, “more business than we know what to do with” and even in a good production year their syrup goes fast. The day I spoke with Bru, Gab Carbone of the Bent Spoon was on her way over to pick up seven gallons.
Amazingly, an ounce-to-ounce comparison of the price of Sweet Sourland Farms maple syrup with Vermont maple syrup available in supermarkets and over the Internet shows that the local syrup is on par or even costs less. Here’s the breakdown, half-pint to half-pint: Maple Grove Vermont Syrup, over the Internet: $7.50 (plus shipping), or through Peapod by Stop & Shop: $6. Trader Joe’s Quebec syrup: $6.39 (i.e. $9.99 for a 12.5 ounce bottle). Sweet Sourland Farms Hopewell syrup: $6.
Sweet Sourland Farms, 90 Lambertville Hopewell Turnpike. (Route 518), Hopewell. Call for directions and availability: 609-466-9241or www.localharvest.org.
Art Exhibit, Artists’ Gallery, 18 Bridge Street, Lambertville. Saturday, April 10, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Opening reception for “Reflections,” an exhibit of colorful abstract paintings by Charles Katzenbach and Andrew Werth. In conjunction with Second Saturdays in Lambertville and New Yope. On view to Sunday, May 2. 609-397-4588 or www.lambertvillearts.com.