Local Highlight: Tessier’s Sugar House

When folks think back on traditions in the Hilltowns, there are few sweeter than the springtime tapping of local sugarbushes. For many this means hours and hours of boiling pots on the stove, watching the sap separate into steam and sugar. But down at the Tessier’s Sugar House in Cummington it’s a way of life. Betty and Peter Tessier work hard, year round, to make sure their spring harvest is as efficient and delicious as possible.

The Tessiers began their foray into sugaring operations in the mid 1970’s. At that time they lived out in Northfield, where they ran an all bucket operation for about 5 years. Eventually, they invested further, purchasing property in Cummington around 1980. Their families pitched in to help build and run the Sugar House, everyone was a part of the push. By 1982 they could stay in the Sugar House for the weekend or while processing sap, as they started construction on their main abode.

By 1984, after two years of building their home and sugar house, they finally moved in. That year would prove to be their all time production record as they set out to haul as much sap as they could muster. Running roughly 4,000 taps, in sugarbushes ranging from their property, to Plainfield, and beyond. Betty, who was seven months pregnant at the time, drove the old pickup around to gather sap while Peter boiled 23 hours a day.

Realistically, the production only stopped for an hour a day to share a meal with the family, utilizing the beautiful picnic tables in their Sugar House. Tables which have served as the family dinner table during sugaring seasons ever since. That year, in 1984, they needed to stoke the fires every 5 minutes, and they went through upwards of 50 cords of wood. This was no causal affair.

Now their kids are all grown up, but they still come by and pitch in, bringing meals to share at the tables. Time has done well for the farm, as they made a point of trying to pick up at least one major improvement a year.

This involved everything from vacuum pumps, filter presses, to huge projects like the reverse osmosis system and a new highly efficient boiler. All these things add up if you’re not careful, and can easily break the bank if they all come at once.

Thanks to modern equipment, sugaring isn’t what it used to be. No more 23 hour days. The key to slashing boiling times, and energy use, is a process called reverse osmosis, it makes a huge difference in the cost of sugaring.

The sap is pressurized and forced through a membrane to separate the sugar molecules from the water, leaving a purified water which is stored and saved for later use. The main product of this process is a sap concentrate which is ready for further processing. The concentrate is pumped up into a holding tank in the Sugar House. This tank is kept higher than the boiler so they can use gravity to pull new sap concentrate into the boiler’s warming pipes. Next the concentrate travels down through one hundred feet of steel piping, before it runs the boiler’s gambit. These pipes serve two purposes; the first is to warm and prepare the concentrate for boiling, the other is to condense the steam into purified water which is also stashed away for later use. These efficiencies add up.

Now the final stages of syrup production begin. For each gallon of finished syrup it takes roughly 40 gallons of sap. Running through each boiler section, the concentrate is kept perfectly at 217.4 degrees by the precision furnace. Here is where the new boiler really shines, it has dials to restrict airflow and maintain exact temps. They can produce 10 gallons of syrup per hour using the new boiler. The syrup is finally done, ready to be stored in kegs or to be hot filled (180 degrees at all times!) into containers for retail sale.

Here is where all the purified water enters back into the equation. Both the reverse osmosis machine and the boiler need to be thoroughly cleaned, spotless, and they can’t use any conventional cleaning supplies.

Luckily, the reverse osmosis results in purified water, making it perfect for cleaning. Because all the minerals have been removed, the water is ready to gobble up any sediment from the walls of the tanks. The Tessiers run a custom rig that acts like a dishwasher, running for at least four hours. This system cycles all the material out, and leaves shining clean machines, ready to use once more.

Over the years they ran an average of 2-3k taps out of their home sugar bush, but these last few years it looks more like 1000.

Even still, the furnace has only needed 5 or 6 cords of wood a season since its installation, quite a considerable savings over the old systems. In fact, their boiler is so efficient they received tax credits to help offset the cost, and a certificate hangs on their wall to prove it. These are the sorts of improvements that show the modern approach to sugaring, and help them continue these days, as time marches ever onward.

Even still, every winter Peter needs to walk the lines to replace all the spouts. And in the spring he needs to drill each of the thousands of taps.

Then he needs to walk the lines every other day during the sap run, or else the squirrels will chew through the lines, depleting the vacuum and bogging the whole system down. Peter really needs to be a jack of all trades to be able to fix his machines and troubleshoot potential issues. Luckily he’s part of the network of sugar makers that help eachother out, and even served as president of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association for a time. But with demand for maple being so high, these folks are all for full cooperation. Friends and farmers helping each other is another wonderful Hilltown tradition.

Peter loves the sap boil, but for Betty it’s the Christmas rush that she loves. There are packages to ship across the country, and beyond! Peter brings them to the post office by the pallet, sending over 250 packages last year. And soon enough they are getting ready for February. Sugaring brings the spring faster. There’s no time for cabin fever when there are so many things to get done.

Peter and Betty are happy for folks to be able to find their product on the shelves of The Creamery, and in our baked goods! The Creamery purchases 5 gal tins of their Very Dark grade syrup for baking, and the flavor shines though. Whenever you see maple on the Creamery’s house made items, rest assured it was tapped right around the corner. It’s hard to get more local than that.

Tessier’s Sugar House

60 Fairgrounds Road Cummington, Massachusetts, 01026

(413) 634-5022