HANCOCK — Even the hardiest New Englanders need something to look forward to as winter roars to its bitter end. For many, that experience is a memorable visit with Miss Terri in the Sugar House at Ioka Valley Farm.
Terrianne Koepp, known as Miss Terri to legions of fans who come year after year to the family-run farm, is Ioka’s high priestess of maple syrup. Every weekend through the third Sunday in April, the 74-year-old (“75 by the end of sugar season,” she says) can be found preaching the gospel of the amber liquid, testifying to the power of boiled-down tree sap. “It’s my cup of tea,” says Koepp. “Yes, it’s a product and we’re selling it, but I want people to be happy when I’m selling it.”
The Leab family has been making syrup at Ioka since 1992, nearly 60 years after the dairy farm began. On Route 43 in the shadow of Jiminy Peak ski resort in this tiny Western Massachusetts town, the Leabs tap 10,000 maples from the first thaw until the buds break on the trees. “We have nine weekends to capture the entire sugar season,” says Missy Leab, part of the third generation, who describes the sugar aficionado as a “very passionate and positive” ambassador. “She has truly embraced all things about maple syrup.”
Koepp’s syrup sermon is a cross between an old-time tent preacher and an infomercial pitchwoman. Her words come out rapid-fire, and she hands guests samples without pause to breathe. “Now the Double A or Grade A light is the candy syrup or fancy syrup. And out in the world, they charge you more. We charge by the size,” she says to the customers on a relatively busy morning in the Sugar House. “The Grade A medium is our Middle of the Road Millie. Later in the season, we have the Grade A Dark, or GPLM. That’s the General Public Loves Me, which we serve in the Calf-A (Ioka’s seasonal restaurant). And the end of the season is our Grade B. It has a rich, more intense maple flavor that will blend with any ingredient and won’t lose its personality.”
Speaking of charisma, Koepp seems to have gallons of it. And it’s her young fans who are among the most captivated. Jack Minella, 11, of Dalton, has been visiting for years. “Even though you went last year, you want to go back because she makes it fun,” says the sixth-grader. “Like I learned the difference between maple butter and maple cream. They sound like dairy products, but maple cream is dairy-free. It tastes the same, but slightly less gritty.”
Minella’s mom, Mary, says Koepp’s down-home style must be good for business. In addition to replenishing her syrup supply last year, Mary came home with a bag of maple crumble (an ice cream topping). “I’m sure we have those because we sampled them from Miss Terri,” she says.
Leab sees that story play out multiple times a day, and calls Koepp’s selling style anything but sappy. “We have a saying with Miss Terri: ‘If you haven’t bought anything, she’s not done talking to you.’ And the other little saying is ‘If it’s not nailed down, she’s gonna sell it on us,’ ” Leab says.
Koepp’s enthusiasm for the farm began in earnest 10 years ago when she started helping out, after running a day care for 33 years in her hometown of Lebanon Springs, N.Y. She and her husband, John (who helps run the evaporators), have their share of health problems, but Leab says they somehow manage to work them around sugar season. In fact, Koepp, who had a heart attack a few years ago, credits maple syrup with her health regimen.
“I ride [my bike] 52 miles a day: 13 miles out and 13 back twice a day,” says Koepp, mid-syrup-selling stream. “When I’m tired, I don’t put food in. I drink maple milk. It’s proven for blood circulation and the minerals are good for your bones.”
A family visiting the Sugar House asks to take a photo with Koepp, which she happily obliges.
“I don’t like having my picture taken,” she says. “But I like that people are happy.”