ShareThis Page
News

Monk's project yields sweet success at Saint Vincent College near Latrobe

| Friday, May 20, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Brother Lawrence Machia, a monk at Saint Vincent, poses for a portrait with a jar of maple syrup that he made on Friday, May 20, 2016 in Unity. Lawrence, with the help of other monks and Saint Vincent students, tapped 21 trees and collected about 250 gallons of sap to ultimately make about 6 gallons of syrup.
Patrick Connolly | Tribune-Review
Brother Lawrence Machia, a monk at Saint Vincent, poses for a portrait with a jar of maple syrup that he made on Friday, May 20, 2016 in Unity. Lawrence, with the help of other monks and Saint Vincent students, tapped 21 trees and collected about 250 gallons of sap to ultimately make about 6 gallons of syrup.
Brother Lawrence Machia, a monk at Saint Vincent, displays a jar of maple syrup that he made on Friday, May 20, 2016 in Unity. Lawrence, with the help of other monks and Saint Vincent students, tapped 21 trees and collected about 250 gallons of sap to ultimately make about 6 gallons of syrup.
Patrick Connolly | Tribune-Review
Brother Lawrence Machia, a monk at Saint Vincent, displays a jar of maple syrup that he made on Friday, May 20, 2016 in Unity. Lawrence, with the help of other monks and Saint Vincent students, tapped 21 trees and collected about 250 gallons of sap to ultimately make about 6 gallons of syrup.

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 kandren@tribweb.com.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me