Please note this post was updated at 2:16PM EST 3/29/13.
My home state of Pennsylvania is on the southern edge of maple syrup production, and my favorite homegrown festival is the Beaver County Maple Syrup Festival. In early April, some 40,000 visitors descend on the wooded hollow of Brady’s Run Park for this festival in southwestern Pennsylvania to devour 50,000 buttermilk and 25,000 buckwheat pancakes made of flour ground on-site, drenched in 300 gallons of real maple syrup produced right there in the park. Now in its 36th year, the event draws tens of thousands of visitors, some from as far away as Canada and London.
The USDA warns that global warming threatens the future of Pennsylvania maple syrup, so I paid a visit to the Brady’s Run maple syrup camp in early March to find out how the syrup-making is coming along this year. Temperatures were just above freezing when I arrived at the camp for a tour with Jim Shaner, Executive Director of the Beaver County Conservation District, just weeks before the festival.
Real maple syrup, not the corn syrup-based junk in a plastic squeeze bottle, is made from the sap of the sugar maple (Acer saccarum), called “sugar water” by maple syrup makers. In late winter, before the tree buds break, warm days and freezing nights trigger a cycle of sap flow throughout the tree. The sap is sucked into the tree roots under negative pressure at night, and it flows throughout the trunk and branches under positive pressure during warm days, allowing it to be collected via taps installed in January. A prolonged period of this daily freeze-thaw cycle is key to collecting enough sugar water to make a respectable amount of Grade A pure maple syrup.
On the morning of my visit, the crystalline sap had frozen overnight in the collection hoses and tanks and was just starting to thaw. One drop on my fingertip tasted like pure artisanal water, with just a hint of sweetness. By early afternoon, temperatures had warmed to T-shirt weather, and the sap was flowing, pouring into steel collection tanks. By late afternoon, Jim’s crew had collected 1,580 gallons of sugar water from the “sugar bush,” as they call the maple forest, and they kept it up well into the evening.
That night, I dropped by the sugar shack – where the sugar water is boiled down into syrup. White clouds of steam billowed from evaporator vents against the dark sky, and a sweet aroma—reminiscent of carnival cotton candy but richer and earthier—filled the air. The crew welcomed me with a hot shot of fresh maple syrup the exact amber shade of Crown Royal whisky, served up in a miniature jelly jar. “That sugar water could’ve come out of the tree just a few hours ago,” Jim said.
It takes 30-50 gallons of sugar water to produce 1 gallon of Grade A medium amber syrup. On this second weekend of March, Jim’s crew collected 6,000 gallons of sugar water from roughly 4,000 trees, which they cooked down to 120 gallons of syrup. If these perfect daily freeze-thaw conditions hold through the month, Jim thinks he’s on target to produce 1,000 gallons for sale at local stores and the festival.
Image by Stacy Small-Lorenz/EDF
This would be a welcome change from last year, when the sap harvest yielded just 259 gallons of syrup. “We only had six nights below freezing last winter, and temperatures hardly ever bottomed out below 44 degrees,” Jim said. His average harvest period has become shorter, too, down from two months to six weeks. He is right to worry about the future of real maple syrup. Maple syrup is one of the oldest agricultural commodities produced in the U.S., but climate change and invading pests like the Asian longhorn beetle increasingly threaten its production.
But for now, I can already taste the maple-soaked buckwheat cake melting in my mouth on a cold spring morning. The unfortunate question is, how long will they be able to serve Beaver County maple syrup at the Beaver County Maple Syrup Festival, or will my son’s generation have to truck it in from Canada?