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SAVOR THE SEASON: Black Rooster Maple

Keene couple’s backyard hobby turns into maple syrup business

March 22, 2019
By GRIFFIN KELLY - Staff Writer ( , Lake Placid News

KEENE - The machine for converting sap into maple syrup is massive, intricate and shiny. The evaporator looks like a chrome locomotive with all its levers, knobs and vapor stacks protruding through the barn's roof. Pretty soon, it will be filled with thousands of gallons of sap, and the base will burn piles of wood at nearly 1,000 degrees above zero. An entire year has been leading up to this four-to-six week window of sugar harvesting.

And at the helm of this big engine is a big man - Kirk Bassarab, owner and operator of Black Rooster Maple on state Route 73.

Bassarab and his wife/business partner Kristy started the business in 2011, but their interest in syrup sparked a couple of years prior when the two decided to tap the maple trees in their backyard. Bassarab would look at the few maples trees on his half-acre plot and wonder, "What would it take to make maple syrup?"

Article Photos

Black Rooster Maple owner and operator Kirk Bassarab holds a bottle of whiskey barrel-aged maple syrup in the store on state Route 73 in Keene Sunday, March 10.
(News photo — Griffin Kelly)

"In that first year, we had about 12 taps," he said. "We had a little 2-by-4 flat pan that we had on some cinder blocks with an open fire underneath and boiled sap. We made about 2-and-a-half gallons of syrup for ourselves, and that's where we got the maple addiction."

The pair has come a long way from 12 taps and a makeshift evaporator. Now they have 3,500 taps, a massive evaporator, a spacious sugarhouse and a reverse osmosis machine, which helps remove water from sap through a high-pressure filter rather than boiling. The operation brought in 1,000 gallons of syrup in 2018. To the average person, 1,000 sounds like a lot, but Bassarab modestly called in an "OK" haul.

"We're happy with the yield," he said. "I mean like anything you always hope to have the greatest yield and the greatest season whether it's maple or corn or wheat, whatever the product may be. But it's up and down and cyclical."

Like many maple harvesters, Bassarab avoids cockiness when it comes to his trade. Even if he had a great season last year, it doesn't guarantee a good haul this year.

"If you say that and you walk that plank, you are going to jinx yourself and something is going to turn around and bite you," he said.

Bassarab compared the evaporator to a rocket ship, saying an infinite number of problems can arise.

"A major, huge, big-time malfunction that's going to be hard to recover from are burned pans, or multiple pumps down in the reverse osmosis machine, something freezes and breaks down," he said. "It can be hard to recover from that.

"And because the season and the window are so short, it's not like you can say, 'oh well, two weeks from now I can get this thing replaced.'"

There could also be problems with the source itself. It's not like the maple trees are grown in a greenhouse. Everything about them is weather-dependent, so if it's too cold one day and the trees aren't flowing, nobody is getting any sap.

Black Rooster Maple's sales operation is in a little roadside shack just past the Stewart's store on Route 73, going toward Keene Valley. Inside there are plastic jugs and glass maple leaves filled with maple products such as pure Adirondack syrup, cream and coffee.

Black Rooster also offers a whiskey barrel-aged syrup, a product of a mutual relationship between the sugarhouse and Gristmill Distillers, also in Keene. Black Rooster ages its whiskey-infused maple syrup in used whiskey barrels, and Gristmill ages its maple-infused whiskey in used maple syrup barrels.

Bassarab said there is a maximum amount of times the two businesses can share barrels before the technique starts to lose its effect on the products.

"A lot of the flavor comes from the char in the barrel," he said. "The more liquids that you put in there, the more uses that you have, the char and the flavor that you get out of the barrel will kind of diminish. The most uses that we ... are getting out of an individual barrel at this point is four uses."

However, Bassarab said there is still some life in those barrels after four uses. A brewery can salvage it for one more go.

"As far as our products go, we're always looking to partner or cooperate with other businesses," Bassarab said. "We've had about four or six different breweries approach us about using our maple syrup."

In the case of Big Slide Brewery and Public House in Lake Placid, Bassarab brought them about 300 gallons of sap, which goes toward the brewery's "Treelixor" beer.

For the last two weekends in March, Black Rooster will participate in New York's Maple Weekends, where sugarhouses all over the state give tours, presentations and samples to guests.

Bassarab said Maple Weekends are hectic and exciting because the producers want to make people feel welcome and show off their products, but they are also in the midst of harvesting and boiling.

"Yeah, it's always a bit of a crunch," Bassarab said. "The premise behind it is throwing open the doors and inviting folks in to see what it is that you're doing. For us, it's one of the most satisfying things with the maple business. So many people know what maple syrup is. They like maple syrup, but they have no idea what it takes to make it. They walk in the door, and you can see their eyes widen and their jaws hit the floor."



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