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Tap into the joys of pure maple syrup

| Wednesday, March 26, 2003

For the next three weeks, rich aromas will waft from area woodlands, tempting people to sample one of nature's oldest treats -- pure maple syrup.

Ever since an unsuspecting American Indian threw his tomahawk at a maple tree, people have been reaping the benefits of the sugary sweet sap that flows through the maple's bark every spring.

Spring in Pennsylvania, as well as other eastern states from Maine to Virginia, means maple syrup festivals, crafts, living history and -- most of all -- pancakes!

Several hundred people got a peek at maple syrup production last weekend during the annual "Maple Madness" event at Beechwood Farms in Fox Chapel.

"We only tap about 15 trees each season," says educator Bill Roscher, "mostly just to show people how it's done."

The staff at Beechwood set up a series of stations -- Native American, pioneer and modern -- to demonstrate maple syrup-making through the ages. Visitors discovered that the process hasn't changed much over the years.

Although there is improved equipment for sap collection, the fundamentals of tapping trees and boiling the sap are nearly the same as those used by Native Americans centuries ago.

Maple syrup begins to flow at the end of winter and early spring when the days get warmer. "The more freezes and thaws you have, the more sap the flows," says Beechwood volunteer Tom Burns.

Maple syrup is made by extracting the clear, watery sap directly from a maple tree through a tap. There are more than 100 varieties of maple trees that can be tapped, but the sugar maple has the highest concentration of natural sugar, about 3 percent to 6 percent.

Because of the labor-intensive process needed to extract and boil the sap, pure maple syrup costs more than common brands of pancake syrup, which is artificially flavored and colored. It takes about 40 to 50 gallons of tree sap to make 1 gallon of pure maple syrup, and 1 gallon typically sells for about $25 to $35.

Purists insist the taste is well worth the cost.

"The stuff in the store has very little pure maple syrup in it," says John Scherfel, manager of the Beaver County Conservation District. "It's mostly corn syrup and other sugars. Plus, maple syrup is healthier for you because it's natural."

Today, Scherfel says, more people are starting to make their own maple syrup. "You can use maple trees right outside your homes in your own back yard," he says. "If you have the time and patience, it's relatively easy."

Each year, Scherfel and a team of several hundred volunteers organize and run the Maple Syrup Festival at Brady's Run Park in Beaver County. The staff has been working to produce about 700 gallons of syrup for one of the largest festivals in the state, held this year on April 5 and 6.

Using a gravity-fed system of tubes and collection buckets, conservation officers tap about 3,500 trees in the park. Volunteers serve pancakes and sausage to about 14,000 people over the two days.

"We use about 250 gallons of syrup for the breakfast alone," he says.

People enjoy maple syrup because of its interesting history, not to mention the flavor. "The kids like to learn where it comes from," Roscher says.

Those who have tried their hands at making maple syrup say it's a lot of hard work. Debbie Swettenam and Linda Humphreys of Armstrong County have been producing maple syrup for the past four or five years.

"We always say it's too much work and this is the last year, but we always end up making it again," Humphreys says. "The neighbors and the kids like to come by and watch."

Swettenam became interested after discovering a large cooker that was used by her relatives to make syrup in Wisconsin.

"It seemed like fun," she says. "I think it's so neat to have this naked, native tree and a little tap, and then after you spend some time cooking it, you have this wonderful, special product."

Swettenam and Humphreys tapped 17 trees this spring and toiled for nearly a week to make 5 gallons of syrup.

The sap needs to be boiled to 219 degrees -- a process that can take as long as 10 hours -- and then put into sterilized jars or bottles. "We used to get little fancy bottles and give to (them) our relatives and neighbors, but now everyone gets a mason jar," Swettenam says, laughing.

Producers say this year's harsh winter made it more challenging to collect sap.

"This year, it came all at once," says Swettenam, citing subfreezing temperatures throughout most of February and a sudden warm-up around March 9.

Ron Brenneman, who operates a sugar camp near Salisbury, Somerset County, says this year's crop may be above average for sweetness. Brenneman, 67, began tapping trees around Feb. 15.

"They say it's determined by the amount of sunshine on the trees the year before, and we had a very hot, dry summer last year," he says.

Brenneman, who is in charge of the camp operated by his wife's family since 1880, sells maple syrup at the Pennsylvania Maple Festival in Meyersdale. In its 56th year, the festival, this Saturday and Sunday and from April 2 through 6, is expected to attract about 10,000 people.

"I think people really like the tradition of a maple festival," says Shawn Buterbaugh, the event's executive secretary. "It's the time of year when people are looking to get out and do things. They've got cabin fever, and it signals the coming of spring."

Brenneman adds that there's a certain amount of nostalgia and romance associated with maple syrup.

"You can't make it just anywhere," he says. "Only in North America. ... So I guess it's sort of special."

26th annual Maple Syrup Festival

  • 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. April 5 and 6.

  • Brady's Run Park, Route 51, Fallston, Beaver County.

  • Activities include all-you-can-eat pancakes and sausage, tours through the sugarbush, maple syrup and grain-grinding demonstrations, music, crafts and living history.

  • Admission: $5 for adults, $4 for children.

  • Directions: From Pittsburgh, follow Route 51 north into Beaver County, for about 30 miles. Turn left into Brady's Run Park.

  • Details: (724) 774-7090.

    56th annual Pennsylvania Maple Festival

  • 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and April 2 through 6.

  • Festival Park, Meyers Avenue, Meyersdale, Somerset County.

  • Activities include maple sugaring demonstrations, car and craft shows, children's activities and stage entertainment. The Quecreek Mine rescue drill bit also will be displayed.

  • Admission: $4 adults, $1 children under 12.

  • Directions: From Pittsburgh take the Pennsylvania Turnpike to exit 10, Somerset/Johnstown. Turn right onto North Center Avenue (Route 601). Turn left onto Route 281 (East Patriot Street). Turn right onto Route 31 (East Main Street). Turn slight right onto Berlin Plank Road. Berlin Plank Road becomes Route 219. Take Old Route 219 ramp. Stay on old Route 219; do not get on the bypass. Follow signs for PA Maple Festival and Festival Park.

  • Details: (814) 634-0213; .

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