JULIE ROBINSON,The Charleston Gazette
SISTERSVILLE, W.Va. (AP) — Several miles up a winding country road outside of Sistersville, a recently constructed warehouse sits on a knoll. Inside the cavernous building, Ed Howell checks readings on a gleaming stainless steel tank-like structure.
Plastic lines snake in from outdoors and move a colorless liquid through a complicated series of machines under Howell's close watch.
The maple syrup that eventually emerges from the high-tech equipment will probably find a homey final destination on a stack of pancakes or warm waffles.
He bottled 92 gallons of maple syrup from 525 taps this year for Sweetcreek Sugarworks, the company he owns with his wife, Connie. They named the company for an incident years ago that involved an open drain and sap flowing into a creek.
Maple syrup production has come a long way from the days when settlers collected buckets full of maple sap and boiled it down over an open fire. The sap still comes from trees, but today's producers use plastic tubes for collection and highly technical equipment such as reverse osmosis machines, evaporators, filters and canners to convert the sap into syrup.
Syrup producers usually get a gallon of syrup from 50 gallons of sap. It takes Howell more like 90 gallons to make one gallon of syrup, due in part to the many pine trees that shade his maples and inhibit photosynthesis, which is necessary for sugar production.
His 160 acres don't get as much snowfall as he'd like, either. Snow cover encourages the trees to run.
Maple syrup production in the hills of West Virginia is proving more challenging than it was in Chardon, Ohio, where he and Connie lived and produced maple syrup for 25 years. The Howells moved into the loft they built above the Tyler County workspace in 2010 largely because he wanted to return to the state in which he was raised.
Howell grew up in the Hackers Creek area of central West Virginia. "I wanted to go back to this life," he said. His wife, a former model who grew up in Chicago where her father owned a fine clothing store, enjoyed living outside of Cleveland, but gamely moved to the country.
"It really is like 'Green Acres,' " said a chuckling Howell, who wore a comfortably worn plaid shirt, jeans and red suspenders. Connie's stylish ensemble and coiffed blond hair did seem to offer contrast.
Howell started making syrup after he helped a friend with his syrup production business. "I became infected with syrup sickness. It causes you to miss work, and tell the boss, 'The trees are running.' Or you know the kids need shoes, but you really want a new piece of equipment," he said.
While the sap runs, usually in January and February, Ed keeps an exhausting 12- to 14-hour workday schedule that culminates each day with meticulous cleaning of all the equipment.
Next year, he plans to build a sugarhouse and move his maple syrup boiling equipment into it. He has about $16,000 in syrup equipment and $5,000 in tubing. At $12 a pint or $20 a quart, Howell will need to sell a great deal of syrup to cover costs. He once asked a friend who had produced syrup for 40 years about the return on investment.
"He said, 'Well, you gotta learn not to look too closely at those numbers,'" Howell said.
This year, production went into March, ending only after the 75-degree days on March 9 and 10. Higher temperatures cause the trees to bud.
"It's called buddy sap and it makes really bad syrup. It's not sweet — it's bitter," said Connie Howell.
After Howell recovers from the maple season, he returns to the steel industrial tooling business that occupies him the rest of the year. The tool and die equipment fills the rest of the 16- by 145-foot structure. He also does mill- and woodworking on a sawmill.
He brought the equipment from the business he owned in Ohio, where he created stainless steel dies from which he makes plastic parts to specifications.
"I can literally make anything," he said.
The tool and die business won't keep him from off-season maple line maintenance, such as repairing the holes squirrels and other animals sometimes gnaw in the plastic lines. In fact, he used his tool and die equipment to create "Critter Patch," a plastic device that joins breaks in the lines. The holes provide frequent and expensive damage.
The Howells also are working with other West Virginia producers to establish industry regulation and a maple syrup makers association.
Maple syrup is graded from Fancy, with a light, delicate flavor, to Grade B, the darkest and most robust syrup. Most of Sugarcreek's is on the darker end of the syrup spectrum. The Fancy grade is considered most desirable by the experts. The high ranking is a throwback to colonial times when settlers wanted a substance that closely resembled refined sugar. The Howells said most people prefer the darker, more flavorful grades.
Connie Howell enjoys the syrup in maple wheat bread, maple glazed carrots and a maple glaze on ham. She makes maple frosting for apple cake, maple fudge, maple pumpkin cookies and a maple cheesecake and said her maple barbecue sauce goes well on chicken and pork.
"I've had more people request this recipe than any other," said Connie Howell, who shared her recipe.
Like most of their customers, she prefers the darker grade, both in recipes and straight, but watches her intake closely.
"I've been diabetic since I was 5 years old. We think God in heaven must be laughing down on us. He put a maple syrup producer with a diabetic," she said.
The Howells sell Sweetcreek Sugarworks pure maple syrup at fairs and festivals and take phone orders. Call 304-758-0432.