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Spike’s Mad Syrup Skills
Every breath was warm brown sugar. Steam floated off the shiny pot of sap, quietly boiling on the counter. The sun filtered through vials of syrup on the windowsill and made the gradient of mahogany, amber and honey yellow glow with light. I was charmed by the whole place, but I still had to play devil’s advocate. “So, you don’t make any money doing this,” I said. “Why do it?”
“Uh…cause it’s awesome,” said Matty Leighton, with a fervency that left no elbow room for regrets. Her husband Mark Sanchez agreed. “It’s more than a hobby,” he said. “I mean…lots of guys spend tens of thousands on model airplanes.”
Mark (“Spike”) and Matty eloped to Vegas in June 2009. Neither of them knew maple sugaring would become part of their busy lives, but in January 2010, Spike got inspired by his old friends over at Benton’s in Thornton, and he decided to try tapping his own maple trees. When Matty heard the scheme, she was completely supportive, and what started with a few buckets from Agway and metal pans on cinderblocks grew into “Spike’s Shack O’ Sugar” located in Plymouth, NH.
When Spike told Matty he wanted to build a sugar shack, she said, “Well, if we’re gonna have a sugar shack, it’s got to be cute.” Colored glass bottles, which are family heirlooms, and a growing collection of vintage syrup containers both adorn the shelves. “We’ve got a little bit of family history up there and a little bit of new history,” said Matty. It’s clear the couple takes great pride in their little shack, and they even nailed up a couple new things on the walls while I was visiting, taking time to admire each addition. One of their favorite side hobbies is exploring junk stores and thrifting cool old things that they can use for décor.
“[The sugaring] is something we do together. We have a lot of fun with it. Our skills are very complementary,” said Matty. In addition to the interior design, she handles the inventory, marketing, sales, customer service, and she did a lot of paperwork to get a grant from the Department of Agriculture. She got their logo made for labels, shirts, hats, and other merchandise; and she also enjoys her full time job as a Program Support Assistant at Plymouth State University.
Meanwhile, Spike handles the mechanics of their operation. “Spike has this interest in innovating and building things, and it’s fun to see how it works with him,” said Matty. She explained that when Spike gets a great idea, it has to ferment a little in the gray matter before it’s fully formed and ready to become a reality. The waiting and thinking process could last up to a whole season. “He often has a multi-stage plan,” said Matty. “It’s really exciting to watch the innovation.”
As Spike showed me how each element of his process worked, I grew more and more convinced that he is part magician, part inventor, and part mad scientist. One of the most impressive things about the business is his ability to repurpose old motors and other “junk” into the tools he needs to harvest syrup, and his inventions are always changing.
He made his first filter, which is used to remove debris like tree bark from the sap, from an old pair of long johns. The next year, he upgraded. He screwed a tire valve into a pressure cooker and pressured the sap inside through a household filter with a bicycle pump. If that wasn’t cool enough, the next year he made a filter press out of the same material as kitchen cutting boards. This press cost him about $400 and it works just as well as a professional press, which would easily be $2400.
Outside the shack, tubing snakes through the trees like a massive cobweb. A homemade vacuum pump draws the sap into Spike’s reverse osmosis system, which separates half the water content from the sap and reduces his boiling time by 90%. It’s also solar powered, which means that he now only needs half a cord of wood to make twenty-five gallons of syrup instead of seven cords. “We’re really trying to hype the ‘making syrup with sunshine’ thing,” he said. Not only is this reverse osmosis system more environmentally friendly, but it saves Spike time and labor chopping firewood. He reuses the separated water content and the leftover hot water from boiling to clean his equipment. The system is beautiful because it’s easier on both him and the environment.
“How did you learn how to do all this stuff?” I demanded. Spike showed me a book called, “North American Maple Syrup Producers Manual.” He said he is constantly looking up questions and he has learned most of what he knows from its pages. “This week I’m gonna figure out how to make lollipops, because it’s too cold to do anything else,” he said. “It’s in there somewhere.” The New Hampshire Maple Producers Association has also been a huge asset to their growth and knowledge in the sugar business, since they joined in 2011. “[The Association] fight the fights against adulteration and keeping the market stable,” said Spike. “Hobnobbing with other sugarmakers is good too. It’s like a community.” Since the maple syrup market is huge and there is lots of room to grow, he only deals with friendly competition from his fellow producers in New Hampshire. “The maple syrup sells itself. People love it, and usually they have a really emotional connection to it,” said Matty. “I would never want to sell something I had to persuade people that they needed.”
You don’t need to spend much time with Spike and Matty before you realize that they are a special couple. The way they support each other wholeheartedly and work together gives me confidence that Spike’s Shack o’ Sugar will continue growing more successful every year. I left the shack with a jar of maple cream and an invitation to come back soon.
If you want to pay Spike and Matty a visit yourself, you can participate in Maple Month, three remaining weekends of open houses at local sugar shacks. Show up on March 18-19, March 25-26, or April 1-2. You can like Spike’s on Facebook for more information.