Aaron McWhorter grew up on a dairy farm in Millerton. During the winter his family tapped their maple trees to make maple syrup. It gave his family something to do in the spring until the fields were ready to work.
After Aaron’s great grandfather passed away in the early 1990’s, his sugar shack was unused until 1998 when Aaron’s dad wanted to start maple production on a larger scale. For the next eight years, Aaron helped his dad and grew more interested in the maple production business.
When Aaron got married and had his own place, he and his wife, Jessica, expanded and started their own business, “A Drop in the Bucket,” located in Gillett, Pa. In the summer of 2016 they built their sugarhouse on Locust Road. During the winter and spring of 2017 they had their first year of maple production there. As their two children grew, it became a real family business.
As a full time business, “maple season” starts early in December when they complete their maintenance to get ready for production. As soon as they get a good cold stretch of weather, normally in January, the tapping starts. Aaron starts to tap the trees when temperatures are below freezing. It’s a job he does by himself and it takes about one week.
“We prefer to tap when it’s below freezing to prevent bacteria from growing in the tap hole,” explained Aaron, who put in 3,800 taps this year.
“Some trees have multiple taps,” said Jessica. “Depending on the size of the tree.”
When temperatures are above freezing during the day and drop at night, the sap begins to flow and they can begin processing in the sugarhouse.
“You have to take advantage of little warm ups,” said Aaron. “It’s different every year.”
“You have to start early because you never know what the season can hold,” added Jessica.
“Once the weather warms up, I have about eight weeks for the flow,” said Aaron.
In addition to the trees on his own property, Aaron spends a great deal of time hauling sap from trees within ten miles of his sugarhouse.
“On a good running day I’ll be trucking six or seven hours,” said Aaron “I can haul 6,000 gallons in a day. In my best year I hauled 120,000 gallons in one season.”
In their maple production, the first step done with the sap is a process called reverse osmosis in which the water is separated from the sugar. It is taken from 1.5% sugar to 16% sugar. At that point, it is stored in a head tank.
“We’re taking most of the water out before we boil it,” explained Aaron.
From the head tank it feeds into a pre-heater that increases its boiling rate 30%.
“It’s heating the concentrate up so much quicker,” said Aaron.
The pre-heater creates condensation that drips 180-degree water into a sink. The water is recycled and used for clean up.
Once the sap is preheated, it is pushed forward through the pre-heater, as the concentrate gets heavier. Then it zigzags through the front pans as it continues heating until it becomes just the right density when it finally goes through the automatic draw-off.
In the draw-off cart, diatomaceous earth, an organic material used to cleanse and filter, is added to the syrup. Then the syrup is pumped through a multi-paper filter where it comes out crystal clear. From there it is put into drums, until it is canned.
“Syrup goes into stainless steel barrels at 200 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Aaron. “So it is hot packed, sealed and preserved for later canning.”
Aaron is able to produce a 40-gallon drum of syrup in one hour because of the reverse osmosis and the type of evaporator he uses. For Aaron reverse osmosis is a short cut.
“It saves time and energy,” said Jessica. “As well as fuel during boiling time.”
“That was one of our goals – to be energy efficient,” continued Jessica. “We’re pretty proud of it.”
According to Aaron, the different grades, or lightness and darkness of the syrup depend on the temperature or time of season in which it is flowing. Usually late in the season produces darker syrup.
Some of the maple products made at “A Drop in the Bucket” include different grades of maple syrup, bourbon aged maple syrup, maple sugar, cotton candy, maple cream, maple mustard, maple barbecue sauce, and various maple covered nuts.
At “A Drop in the Bucket,” the whole family is involved in the maple production. Kyper and Arellin are the official tasters to make sure the products are the best. Kyper’s favorite thing to taste is the maple cream. Arellin’s favorite is the maple-covered almonds. But they do much more than just taste the finished products.
“Our kids love this as much as Aaron does,” said Jessica. “They tap their own trees out back and collect with buckets.”
“We wanted to show them where maple syrup comes from the old fashioned way,” said Aaron.
“We’re teaching them the hard work that goes into the process making one gallon of syrup,” added Jessica.
Usually by the second week of April the McWhorters finish production in the sugarhouse. Then it is just the clean up. The rest of the year they work on bottling syrup, making products, doing vendor shows and farmers markets.
This year, “A Drop in the Bucket” is doing something special. On Saturday and Sunday, March 20 and 21, they will be hosting an open house at their sugarhouse.
Located at 95 Locust Rd. in Gillett, this event will take place from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. both days. They will have demonstrations, samples and giveaways as well as their products for sale. They will be following proper social distancing.
For more information about this event as well as their products, call (570) 537-2328 or visit www.adropinthebucketmaple.com. They are also on Facebook.
Aaron McWhorter is a fourth generation maple producer. But most likely his family will have a fifth. When asked what he wants to be when he grows up, Kyper McWhorter said, “I want to make maple syrup like my dad.”