Charlie's Sugarhouse in Coventry, RI
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Coventry, RI - You can hear Charlie and his friends chatting away at the sugarhouse when you visit to see the boil but seeing them may be tricky. The back half of Charlie’s sugar shack is engulfed in a syrupy thick cloud of steam billowing from the evaporator into the chill spring air, and it’s in that sweet-smelling cloud that you’ll find Charlie, circling the vat constantly and keeping an eye on the syrup’s progress.
If you don’t pay it constant attention, he cautions, it can burn in the blink of an eye, and the whole batch is ruined. Visitors may need to wait a few minutes while he gets backup, before he’s free to give a sugar-making tour. It’s worth the wait.
Just beside the bright red sugarhouse, Charles Chase, otherwise known as Charlie, has a beautiful, tall maple that allows him to demonstrate how he taps the trees to gather the flush of watery sap that wakes maple trees up in the spring and ushers in budding and leaves.
His father, a machinist with agricultural dreams, first showed Charlie how to drill the holes (with a manual drill, no less!) and pound in the little metal spigots that divert some of the tree’s sap into a waiting bucket.
“I’m living the life he always wanted,” Charlie says of his father. They used to have the classic galvanized metal buckets famous from so many Vermont postcards but now Charlie uses five-gallon plastic buckets because their larger capacity allows him to gather sap less often (as well as limiting how much sap he loses from overflowing buckets).
These days any kind of bucket is rare, because most sugar-makers festoon their sugar bush with plastic tubing that delivers sap from the hole in the tree straight to a big collection vat. Charlie does this by hand, manually pouring each bucket of sap into the vat, which he carts back to the shack for boiling.
Charlie has a rather small production, and admits that the big-time producers say you have to boil sap much faster but as long as you process it before the sap starts to ferment, he finds there’s little negative effect.
It does mean that his syrups are a shade or two darker than other syrups of the same flavor profile, so they are usually graded Medium Amber when they are bottled. Loyal customers marvel at the richer, deeper flavor of Charlie’s syrups, and could care less what the grade is as long as it keeps that real mapley taste.
He boils every weekend in March, or at least the ones when the sugar is running. Nature has its own calendar, and each year’s spring alchemy of light, temperature, weather and mojo varies enough so you can’t be quite sure when the flow will start, or finish (this is why it’s best to telephone ahead to make sure they are open before taking the trip to the farm).
The 2007 season got a slow start, so he couldn’t start boiling until March 18—unusually late for this far south. Boiling days seem to be as much social occasions as workdays, and friends and neighbors drop in to lend a hand, catch up and good-naturedly rib Charlie about his self-taught methods.
“The only thing two farmers can agree on is what the third one is doing wrong!” laughed fellow sugar-maker Geoff Beavin, who was spending the day helping out by keeping an eye on the evaporator so Charlie could focus on visitors.
Charlie has a wood-burning, multi-chambered boiler that moves thickening sap along a series of compartments until it reaches the target condensation. The principle is very simple: Maple sap is made of just 2 or 3 percent sugar when it comes from the tree, and the more water you boil away, the higher the percentage of sugar will be.
The law requires maple syrup to range from 66.7 percent to 67.9 percent sugar content, so he has to keep a close eye on the last compartment as the syrup enters its final stage of cooking, turning a caramelized brown while thickening to reach the desired consistency—thick enough to ooze off the sides of a big stack of pancakes.
“You’ve got to wear roller skates to keep up with everything!” he jokes as he dislodges a leaf that’s blocking the flow of thickening syrup.
The big risk is if the sugar overcooks, the syrup will be ruined. The smell of caramel is the first sign that it’s too late. Shortly after that, the smoke changes color and spells disaster—the whole evaporator has to be cooled off and cleaned out before they can resume making syrup, with a new batch of sap.
Because his current evaporator is wood-fired, there is no “off” switch, so an ounce of prevention is worth far more than the cost of recovery.
The only way to keep an eye on progress is to carefully monitor the syrup in the final stage of the evaporator—it has a thermometer that indicates when the syrup is in range, and as it edges upward, Charlie darts into the steam more frequently to take up a ladleful of syrup to observe and test for its sugar percentage—or so he says. The steam is so thick I can barely make him out a scant foot away, peering at arcane devices like some backcountry alchemist turning water into edible gold.
When a batch is flirting with completion, he quickly drains it into a tub and finishes it off on the stovetop, where he can control the delicate final steps before bottling. He might get around 500 gallons a year, which he sells from the farm as well as wholesaling to local stores around the state including Dave’s Marketplace, Belmont Market, Eastside Marketplace, gourmet shops and corner stores. Visitors to the sugarhouse are the only lucky souls who get to try his maple candy and cream, which he taught himself to make years ago for the challenge and fun of it.
The same might really be said of the whole sugaring operation, which he set up on a small scale when he was a high-school 4-H member in the 1970s.
“Homesteading was a big idea back then,” he says with a grin. “This whole thing is a 4-H project run out of control.” It began with one tree and a pot on the kitchen stove but after the wallpaper started peeling from the endless steam, his mother kicked his project out of the house.
He built a cinderblock fire pit in the yard and continued to learn by trial and error what you could and couldn’t do to get good syrup. He tapped all the maples on their property, then started asking neighbors to use their trees in exchange for a bit of the crop. For a decade or so he had about 200 buckets within a 20 mile radius of home, which was as much as he could handle by himself on top of his day job.
“When I got married, my wife finally said that if I wasn’t making money at it, I should get out, so I went bigger instead!” He was lucky to find a couple of neighbors with many maples who were willing to help gather sap for him—“two tree-huggers who’ll tap for me!” he jokes. He’s up to 2,000 taps a year now, and most years he sells out of the previous year’s crop before the new one begins. He has expanded his potential for visitors, with a large sugarhouse and space for little exhibits plus a sales area for a larger variety of products.
Charlie dreams of getting an oil-burning boiler so he can triple evaporation speed, from 50 gallons an hour to 150. On the other hand, the wood-burning evaporator does have the advantage of running off of deadwood culled off his property throughout the year, an economy with the added benefit of making Charlie’s sugarhouse smell just right with a swirl of sweetness and smokiness that clings to your hair and clothes long after you’ve trundled back home.