COLUMBIA FALLS — If one out of 100 visitors to Church’s Sugar Shack has more than a passing interest in sugaring, Lewis Church is happy.
It’s one of the reasons he and co-owner Andrea Joyce regularly invite school groups, Scout troops and members of the public to their part-time operation in Columbia Falls.
Theirs was one of the more than 60 sugarhouses to participate in Maine Maple Sunday March 24, offering tours, demonstrations and samples to visitors. Their sugar shack also was open to the public Saturday and they offered private tours Thursday and Friday to school students, Scouts and other groups.
On Sunday, Church stood behind a large, steaming metal container inside a small shack just a short distance from Route 1. Raw sap, he said, is 97 or 98 percent water. It enters the first tub and, as the water boils off, the sap makes its way through the baffles in the boiler until what remains is syrup.
“When we’re done, we keep that little bit of sugar,” he told visitors from all over Washington and Hancock counties, who waited in a short line for a closer look.
Church said he heats the boiler with a wood fire but quipped he wasn’t sure how well his operation was working that day because he was getting too distracted talking to visitors to properly tend the fire.
“I could talk about maple sugar all day,” he told about a dozen people crammed into the building.
Sugarhouses use different methods to make syrup and Church usually finishes his using heat provided by gas rather than wood, he said.
After guests got a peek at the boiling sap, they could sample maple fudge and vanilla ice cream topped with fresh maple. Although Joyce offered a variety of maple coated nuts and treats for sale, she didn’t have any fudge available to sell.
“I was going to make fudge [to sell],” she said. “But it rained and I learned you never make fudge in the rain.” According to her grandmother, fudge won’t harden properly in stormy weather, she said.
The family has approximately 170 taps on five acres of sugarbrush, said Church’s daughter, Jasmine, 16, who took visitors outside to see a couple of the taps and collection buckets.
“We get a lot of help with this activity,” said the elder Church. “I have some friends and they allow us to tap their land and they collect for us and have a great time.”
Church said he works full time in construction and Joyce is a medical assistant.
“We do this nights and weekends,” he said.
The couple began tapping this year on about Feb. 20, they said. The season usually lasts about six weeks, though it is dependent on the ever-changing weather. Ideal conditions are temperatures in the 20s at night and in the 40s during the day, they said.