Sometimes, when Charlize Katzenbach takes the occasional agritourist to see maple syrup boiling away at her sugar house, a sweet cloud envelops everyone. “Everybody’s just standing around and the smell hits them, and you can see people just melt. It’s so warm, and so full of sweetness,” says Katzenbach, who inherited the farm from her father. She’s been maple sugaring at Sweet Sourland Farms in Hopewell since 1989—marking 30 years this year. But when you talk to her, you can tell the magic hasn’t faded. “You don’t always notice it when you’re in there, but out in the cold and crisp air, it hits you and it’s like, ‘Wow. That’s wonderful.’”
Of course, Charlize and her partner Bru—who do much in the way of agritourism—are the first to disabuse you of maple sugaring as wintry air and sugar clouds. “Maple syrup is the most energy-intensive agricultural product,” Bru explains, with farms like Sweet Sourland facing issues like Climate Change and energy costs head-on. It’s also one of the stingiest as yields go: “It takes about 40 gallons of maple to make one gallon of syrup,” says Charlize. They’re not in it for the money. “We’re pragmatic idealists,” says Bru, who goes on to explain how they “don’t use chemical fertilizers or herbicides,” compost organic waste and use renewable energy. “We just want to keep our farm honestly and improve the land.”
That mindset harkens back to how Sweet Sourland got its start in 1955, when Charlize’s father, a surgeon, moved to Hunterdon County for the opening of the Hunterdon Medical Center. “He bought an old stone house and some land at $500 an acre,” says Charlize. “Dad didn’t farm necessarily. He’d been through the Depression. He knew what the Dust Bowl was like, knew you had to take care of the land,” a mindset uniquely matched to the hardscrabble pine territory of the Sourlands. “He always had a big garden, and he loved to plant trees,” says Charlize, who grew up on the farm, loving those trees. And when she and Bru moved from their Pennsylvania farm back to Sweet Sourlands in 1984, that’s what they got—trees. “We were moving into this pine tree world, in the midst of 6,000 pine trees and no sun, no land to work!” But then, says Charlize, “I discovered the sugar maple. Our forester came by and he said, ‘Gee, you’ve got enough trees here to have something.’”
Bru and Charlize started tapping at Sweet Sourlands in 1989. Today, they have 300-plus Red Maples and 100-plus Sugar Maples connected to their vacuum tubing tap system, and most of the trees are old growth. “We didn’t plant many. Maybe 100 or 125 over the years,” says Charlize. Working in maple sugaring means you live in a sort of violent codependent relationship with your trees, literally wounding them, bleeding them, living off a sweetness it takes them ages to generate. But if you do it right, “by the end of the year, the tree is completely healed,” says Charlize, and she and Bru will have produced between 80 to 125 gallons of syrup. “We sell every drop we produce,” says Bru.
There are more than a few distinguishing features of Sweet Sourland (solar panels, that persnickety non-touristy vibe, adorable goats roving the property, helpfully munching up wild rose). Another: their grade is darker than your average syrup. Maple syrup grading changed in 2015—Grades A,B, and C giving way to (more helpful) descriptive qualifiers. All syrups are technically “Grade A,” with four new categories that describe color and flavor. Sweet Sourlands syrups are classified as “Dark Color and Robust Flavor,” which would be like an old Grade B. Much of that is owed to how Sweet Sourlands produced their syrup. Most larger syrup producers reduce syrup by a process called “reverse osmosis,” or R.O., which extracts water content without changing the sap’s character. Sweet Sourlands uses a combination of reverse osmosis and old school woodfire oven evaporation.
“When boiling sugar water down and thickening your syrup, it becomes kind of like you caramelize, with more complex flavors and tastes. Plus, there’s always a little bit of smoke floating around the air,” says Charlize, who, at 70 years old, still chops wood for the evaporator stove. “That cooking process is vital—take it away and it really affects the flavor of the syrup.”
Another unique factor of Sweet Sourlands, and maybe a key feature in New Jersey’s syrup future, is the predominance of Red Maple sap in its syrup (as opposed to more commonly associated Sugar Maples). “About two-thirds of our trees are Red Maple,” says Charlize. What’s the difference? Sugar Maples are so-named because their sap has closer to two percent sugar concentration, whereas Red Maples “have about one percent sugar,” says Charlize. That might not seem like a huge difference, but when you dial up production exponentially for syrup, “it’s a huge amount of extra work.”
Red Maples are plentiful in Jersey, which is why organizations like Stockton University—“New Jersey’s ‘Green’ University”—are looking into increasing their usage. “They’re looking for a grant,” says Charlize. “We signed up to help them if a grant is given to them. Because of all the Red Maples in South Jersey, and with reverse osmosis, Red Maples become tappable and commercially viable.” And once cooking methods come in, “the taste [of the syrup] is identical to Sugar Maple syrup. The quality is identical.”
Sweet Sourlands is also working with Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who is trying to breed maples with higher natural sugar content. “We have some [trees] we planted that were bred at Cornell to take sugar content from two to eight percent. We have 100 trees planted in a row that would be the equivalent of 400 trees, all in nice rows, right above the sugar house.” Which, I note, Charlize’s kids would have the pleasure of tapping at this point. She laughs. “Kids have it so easy!”
But even with these advances, New Jersey still has the climate to contend with. Charlize still remembers Hurricane Sandy. “By the time I walked into the woods, our tubing had been absolutely destroyed. So many lost trees in our woods. I just stood there and cried.” More than disasters like Sandy are issues like warm spells. “What gets difficult in New Jersey are big warm fronts coming up from the Gulf Stream that overly warm us. Last year we were killed—great early season flows in January, then a warm spell [where it] didn’t drop below 50 at night,” Charlize remembers. “January thaw can kill you.”
All that aside, when we spoke last week, Charlize said she was planning to begin the farm’s month or month-and-a-half-long season on Saturday. “I’ll have to check the forecast.” And meanwhile there still is romance to be had at Sweet Sourlands. Not long ago, chef Chris Albrecht of The Ryland Inn visited. “He was doing a video for the kids at Princeton schools, [for the] school system,” Charlize remembers. “They came to the sugar house when we were boiling. It was so wonderful to see him take his hand and pull the steam from the syrup over to his face, to see his expression change. Just a sniff of it coming up in the air—it has so much fullness to it.”
Sweet Sourland Farms is located at 90 Lambertville Hopewell Road in Hopewell. They’re not necessarily an agritourist kind of spot, but you can find their syrup in season at the farm and a few other spots listed on their website. You can also follow them on Facebook.Click here to leave a comment