Monk's project yields sweet success at Saint Vincent College near Latrobe
Ask Brother Lawrence Machia what ingredients go into maple syrup, and he's quick to tell you: blood, sweat, tears and love.
Well, that, and gallon upon gallon of maple tree sap.
Machia, 30, a monk at St. Vincent Archabbey, brought his passion for maple syrup from his hometown of Swanton, Vt., to St. Vincent College, where he led a syrup-making endeavor that yielded six precious gallons of pure, golden amber syrup this month.
“The maple syrup industry is a big part of Vermont culture,” said Machia, who never realized his passion for syrup until other monks teased him at breakfast. His mom once sent him a 70-pound care package full of Vermont maple products so he'd have a taste of home, he said.
After one of those breakfast conversations, Machia and a few other monks decided to try their hands at syrup making, he said. They made a small, experimental batch last spring, then grew and improved their operation this year.
“This has amazing potential as an educational adventure,” from involving chemistry and biology students in the production process to bringing in art and marketing students to label and sell the syrup, he said.
“There are so many angles (from which) you can involve a university.”
Colleges throughout the Northeast have campus-based maple syrup operations, including Keystone College, north of Scranton, which runs 275 taps and has a small, permanent sugar shack to boil down and finish the syrup.
Although Vermont produces 41 percent of all maple syrup nationally, Pennsylvania ranks fifth with 5 percent, or about 165,000 gallons a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Pennsylvania operations tallied about 620,000 taps in 2015, while the Northeast collectively pulled sap from more than 10.2 million tree taps, the USDA reported.
Machia estimated 50 students, staff and fellow monks helped him throughout the labor-intensive process.
“It fosters togetherness. One guy can't do it,” he said.
Machia said they collected 280 gallons of sap from 34 taps on 21 maple trees across the Unity campus. Because sap is about 2 percent sugar, and syrup, by definition, must be 66 percent sugar by weight, it must be boiled down over hours to reach the right concentration.
The six gallons of finished syrup are spread among dozens of Mason jars of varying sizes, some of which will be reserved for the monks, some given to the archabbot and small samples given to every person who helped.
“First, I want to line it up all pretty and look at it,” Machia joked.
The syrup-making process began last summer when Machia chopped and split the logs that would fuel his wood-fired boiler, which he built using paving stones and fireproof bricks to create a large box and 13-foot-tall flue. The boiler heated the sap in metal food service trays sitting across the top.
While environmental science students helped him tap the trees, collect and record the sap in early spring, he and other volunteers built a makeshift “sugar shack” using tents and tarps to protect the boiler in a small wooded area near the monastery.
Machia said he froze the sap in buckets and stored it in the college's walk-in freezers while he finished building the boiler. He then put frozen sap into the trays and let it boil down, transferring it to a smaller, more precise propane burner to finish it off.
The final step was to pour the syrup through a large cone-shaped filter and into the jars to remove any solids that came out through the boiling process.
With approval of college officials, Machia said he'd like to plant more sugar maple trees, although they won't be ready to provide sap for 25 or 30 years.
He'd like to expand to 50 taps and perhaps build an even more professional boiler and sugar shack, if he has the time.
Machia, who will take his final vows as a monk in July, is studying to be a priest and works in the college's planetarium and observatory. After he finishes seminary, he said he'd like to earn a doctorate in astrophysics or astronomy and return to St. Vincent to teach.
Kari Andren is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2856 or firstname.lastname@example.org.