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Mega Maple

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ISLAND POND, Vt. -

Even with the familiar steam rising from the rooftop, it's easy to see from the outside that this isn't your typical sugar shack. In fact, if all goes according to plan, the former Ethan Allan Furniture Factory by the end of the year could become the largest maple syrup producer in the world.

"Our ability to expand this operation, I'm not going to say it's limitless, but it's quite substantial," Bob Saul said.

Saul is the CEO of Sweet Tree Holdings LLC. His company is just one of many financial assets owned by Connecticut-based Wood Creek Capital, a real estate investment firm that dabbles in everything from telecom to aviation to agricultural infrastructure, and an investment arm of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.

So, what's the interest in maple?

"Maple sugar, the ultimate essence of what maple syrup is, is a sugar that's being recognized as healthy, low glycemic and it's still sweet and it's natural and it's organic. I mean, there are all kinds of good things about it," Saul said.

But Saul, who's quick to point out he's from the Berkshires, says the company is taking a new approach, avoiding the traditional wholesale syrup business and instead gearing up to make their own value-added products. He says his backers are bullish on the prospects for maple as an all-natural, organic sweetener.

"We'll be in that refrigerator sometime soon. We'll be in your liquor store sometime soon with some kind of distilled spirits," Saul said. "There are folks out there who are well ahead of us in terms of experimenting and placing their products in stores. We're just doing it at scale and scale matters."

Over the past year, Sweet Tree and its parent company have spent untold millions buying thousands of acres in nearby Warren's Gore, tapping trees and converting the old Ethan Allen Plant into a state-of-the-art maple factory. It all starts in the sugarbush. To get an idea of the sheer size of Sweet Tree's operations-- they tapped 92,000 trees this year. All that sap gets gravity-fed or pumped down 1,400 miles of tubes. And they plan to expand next year.

Sweet Tree built a brand new reverse osmosis building just up Route 114 from the factory. That's where all the tubing converges and sap is fed into the building, pumped upstairs into storage tanks and processed to remove about three-quarters of the water, leaving a 25 percent maple concentrate.

"Each one on its own will process 7,200 gallons of sap an hour," said Tim Gray of Sweet Tree.

The concentrate is then transported by truck to the factory.

"It holds 5,000 gallons of capacity, and that is concentrate right now, through that blue tube being run through the PVC over to the concentrate storage," Saul said.

The tour continues into the heart of the operation-- the power plant. Unlike most maple processing which uses fire, here, two enormous propane-fired boilers create steam to boil down the sap.

"You never have direct flame or direct heat source ever touching the sap," Saul said.

Which he says means you don't burn your syrup and keep a lighter-colored syrup longer. From giant storage tanks, the maple concentrate is fed into one of several evaporators. Workers constantly measure for optimal sugar content.

"What you see here-- the actual sugar making. Even though we have very large and powerful evaporators and we have a system that's very efficient, it still takes folks staying up all night. When the sap flows, it flows; you have to be there and you have to have a crew that's committed," Saul said.

Local resident Jim "Deak" Worth is on that crew, one of the 24 full-timers on payroll. He spent seven years working security at the old factory and says he never expected it to reopen.

Reporter Alexei Rubenstein: In your wildest dreams, would you have ever thought you would be in the sugaring industry?

Jim "Deak" Worth: No, not at all. All the businesses in town are very pleased. They spend a lot of money locally patronizing them. It's very good for the town.

Town officials say Sweet Tree fits perfectly into the town's historic wood-based community.

"The trees are already here. It's not like we have to ship in any raw product here, it's all here. It's taking advantage of what's already here and it's the state's flagship product," Brighton Town Administrator Joel Cope said.

After the boil, the final product is piped into 55-gallon drums and rolled away for safe keeping. The bulk of the 35,000 gallons produced this year will stay in storage as company officials fine-tune new product brands.

How will this new major player in the maple industry fit in?

"We haven't seen that sort of scale of investment really not just in Vermont, but in the maple industry," said Matt Gordon of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association. "It's unique, it's new and so I think there's this element of-- it's catching everyone by surprise."

He says reassurances that Sweet Tree's syrup won't get dumped on the wholesale market has quelled some fears. And he agrees that demand for maple continues to boom.

While the corporate scale of the venture may seem a little unfamiliar to Vermonters' ideas about maple sugaring, Bob Saul says the essential ingredients are the same. And based on the economics, he sees a continued recipe for success.

"Constrained supply, increasing demand and you have the woods," he said. "A tree that's this big today is going to be this big and is going to be able to be tapped in 10 years."

Maple economics 101 from the state's major new producer on the scene.

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