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  • Matt Hatch of Milford N.H. pours maple syrup drawn from the evaporator at 219 F into a stainless steel container where it will cool to 180 F before it is bottled for sale.

    Moe Kirk photo
  • Co-owner Jared Elliott of Nashua makes adjustments to a ladle used to test if boiling maple syrup has reached the right density at Hatch's Sugar Shack.

    Moe Kirk photo
  • Photo by Moe Kirk
    In a 2010 photo, Hatch's Sugar Shack owner Matt Hatch adjusts gauges and checks sap boiling in the back pan to ensure the evaporation process is starting out smoothly.

  • Steam billows through vents in the roof of Hatch’s Sugar Shack in Milford, as 125 gallons of water evaporate each hour when sap is boiled down to make maple syrup.

    Moe Kirk photo
  • After testing maple syrup in the evaporator for "sheeting", Matt Hatch pours the dense liquid from a ladle into a vessel where its temperature will be checked to see if it is ready to be drawn.

    Moe Kirk photo
  • Jars filled with maple syrup lining the windowsill in Hatch's Sugar Shack show the gradual progression in shades from dark to light.

    Moe Kirk photo
  • At the very beginning of the production line, sap drips from a tapped sugar maple into a bucket on the property of Hatch's Sugar Shack at 204 Jennison Road in Milford, N.H.

    Moe Kirk photo
Saturday, March 19, 2011

State’s syrup producers holding open house this weekend

The partnership behind Hatch’s Sugar Shack in Milford was born over breakfast five years ago.

Over coffee, Matt Hatch, owner of Hatch Plumbing and Heating in Milford, told his lifelong friend Jared Elliott, of Nashua, that he had just purchased an evaporator for $800.

Elliott said he wanted in, and paid half the cost.

Since then, their pursuit of sweet perfection has gained some steam.

Hatch’s Sugar Shack medium maple syrup won its division at the Deerfield Fair in 2010 and its dark syrup placed second at the Hillsborough County Agricultural Fair in New Boston based on clarity, density, flavor and packaging.

They also took second prize out of 28 entries in the Carlisle competition at the New Hampshire Maple Producers Association’s annual meeting in Lebanon.

Hatch credits the owners of Cilley’s Sugar House for sparking his interest in syrup making. He had an open invitation to visit and help in their operations in Francestown.

With his curiosity piqued, Hatch quickly discovered that the N.H. Maple Producers Association is a tight-knit community that’s ready with instructions, advice and encouragement to support its members.

With the guidance of veteran syrup producers, Hatch’s Sugar Shack started in 2006 at its 204 Jennison Road location with a rudimentary system involving a flat plan and bricks. While this worked, it lacked efficiency.

To handle larger volumes of product, operations needed to be expanded, so Hatch and Elliott combed the N.H. Maple Producers’ website for more suitable equipment. In turn, the original gear was listed and sold to people starting out.

The flat pan was replaced with an evaporator measuring 2 feet by 3 feet, but even that proved to be inadequate for processing the sap from 1,000 taps piping into 100 buckets. That system was sold and replaced with one supporting the 3-by-10 jam pans that are currently in place.

Last year, a total of 65 gallons was processed at an average ratio of 40 gallons of sap to 1 gallon of syrup. This season’s output is expected to be double that quantity.

Hatch figures his partners have invested about $12,000 in the business. As is tradition in many businesses, the first dollar made from the first pint sold was tacked to the wall above the evaporator.

The business has yet to see a profit, but Hatch is optimistic.

“It’s a labor of love,” he said, “and who knows, we might break even this year.”

Beginning with the first weekend of each year, Hatch and Elliott fill the daylight hours of Saturday and Sunday preparing for the three- to six-week maple season. Wood is stacked next to the firebox, the piping through which the sap flows is checked and the sugar maples are tapped.

When all is in place, all they can do is wait for the temperatures to cooperate. For the sap to flow, nighttime temperatures below freezing and daytime temperatures above 40 degrees are required. This perfect formula arrives in New Hampshire in February and lasts only until warmer days and nights arrive in March.

Just as there is a flow to turning sap into syrup, there is a flow to the work performed by the two partners.

Elliott backs a pickup truck to the open doorway of the building and starts feeding the tank of sap that accumulated in buckets overnight into the pre-heater. He checks that pumps are working and swiftly repairs any equipment that needs attention.

While Elliott handles those responsibilities, Hatch moves smoothly among loading the firebox, checking the temperature of the syrup in the evaporator pan and ensuring that niter, or sugar sand, isn’t cooking to the bottom of the pan.

Brief conversations are squeezed in between steps to check each other’s status.

The syrup is boiled at 219 degrees. At this stage, Hatch’s focus is critical, because the syrup can burn and ruin the batch. As the syrup reaches the boiling point, it foams and a drop or two of canola oil is added to reduce the reaction.

At the proper density, the syrup will “sheet” off of the end of a ladle. At that stage, it’s drawn out of the evaporator pan and passed through a filter. About 125 gallons of water evaporates per hour, and each draw has an output of nearly 2 gallons of syrup.

“Now I’ve got the bug,” he said, and proclaimed that he has his eye on placing first with light syrup in this competition season.

After filtering, the syrup is cooled to 180 degrees and is manually bottled in plastic jugs of pint, quart, half-gallon and gallon measures. The syrup is sold on-site and at County Stores and Trombly Gardens in Milford.

And, being mindful of buying locally, customers who order a stack of pancakes or French toast with maple syrup at Milford’s Cafe on the Oval will be enjoying syrup produced nearby.

When Hatch was asked why he added this to his hectic life as a plumber and dad to three young children, he laughed.

“Really, I guess I just like working hard and losing sleep,” he said.

Hatch’s Sugar Shack is open to the public Sundays from 9 a.m.-noon, with syrup available to purchase. The business can also be found on Facebook.