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Sweet Reward: Cold, Snowy Winter Promises to Deliver a Bumper Crop of Maple Syrup

by on March 13, 2018 5:00 AM

For about a month each year, around the end of February to the end of March – depending on the severity of the winter – the sap in maple trees is at its prime to be collected and turned into maple syrup. Professionals and amateurs alike head out into forests of the Northeast to tap maple trees and collect sap.

Laurie McLaughlin, a Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management course instructor at Penn State and director of Shaver’s Creek’s Environmental Center’s Maple Harvest Festival, explains that the best time of year to tap trees is when it’s warm enough during the day that the syrup will flow well, but cold enough at night to keep the trees from starting to bloom. When the tree is in bloom the sap is too bitter for maple syrup.

Shaver’s Creek usually hosts a Maple Harvest Festival in March to teach area residents about the history of maple syrup, how to collect the sap and turn it into syrup. This year, because the Environmental Center has been undergoing some renovations, the festival is canceled, but it’s expected to happen again next year.

McLaughlin says the first time she saw maple syrup being made was when she was a Penn State student at Shaver’s Creek.

“It was eye-opening to me, I didn’t know how it was made,” she says. “Just the idea that you can create this syrup from something so natural, and knowing it’s better for you than the high-fructose corn syrup that I grew up on was just so cool.”

When McLaughlin came back to work, she was put in charge of the festival. Now she’s educating others. At Shaver’s Creek, they have 20-30 maple trees on site that they tap for sap, over a four- to six-week period. She teaches others that a tree that is old enough and healthy enough to tap is at least 10-12 inches in diameter. It’s important to make sure it’s big enough because tapping a young, skinny tree will hurt the tree. She says it’s also critical that when drilling the hole, at an upward angle, 4 to 6 feet above ground, it’s not in a place where the tree has been drilled before.

“It leaves a little scar, a hole that looks like it’s been covered up,” she says. “Tapping a tree for sap is like giving blood; it’s OK to do, it’s not going to hurt the tree to do it a few years in a row, but it shouldn’t be in the same spot each year. At Shaver’s Creek, we keep a record of which trees were tapped and give the older ones a break here and there.”

Shea Bracken, a State College resident, started making maple syrup with her dad as a kid. She says her father wanted to do something the whole family could participate in, and as an outdoor lover, he wanted to get them outside, even in the winter. She thinks about the custom fondly.

“My dad always told us the story of the Little Red Hen, who worked hard to plant and harvest wheat and bake his own bread. No other animal on the farm helped him, so no other animal got to eat the bread. I think of that story and the tradition behind our family making the syrup together,” she says. “I don’t do it with him anymore, but I go out one day during the season to help him collect the buckets and empty them. He usually makes enough each year to give all of his kids some.”

Bracken says her dad does it on a small scale (it takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup) using metal taps and buckets, but his method and tools for the process have improved with experience.

“He used to cook the syrup in long metal pans over an open fire,” she says. “It was fun for us to sit out in front of the fire, but it was a lot of work for him; he’d have to get up every few hours and throw more wood on it to keep the fire going. Now he has something similar to a wood-burning stove that you put the wood inside and it burns on its own.”

At a time when many people are getting cabin fever, maple syrup makers often trudge through snowy forests to tap the trees and start their collection. 

“Some winters were so bad that when we started the tapping, the spile [the spout for draining sap into buckets] would be at waist-level but by the time you were pulling it out in the spring, the snow melted and the spile was at eye-level,” says Wayne Shuey, of Shuey’s Creek Bottom Farm. “A year like this, where the winter has been more extreme and the ground is still frozen, will produce some great syrup.”

Shuey and his brothers, Christopher and Tobin, tap about 150 trees each year on Tobin’s 130 acres, and Shuey sells the syrup at farmers markets. Shuey has been making syrup for 19 years. He started it as an activity with his own children, and as a scout master taught his troop how to make spiles out of wood, tap the trees, attach buckets, cover them from bugs and rain, check and empty the buckets weekly, gather it all, and use a boiling process to evaporate the water to make the syrup. Shuey says he uses a strainer and cheesecloth to filter the syrup.

“The big producers of maple syrup live and die by the forecast,” Shuey says. “A winter like this one, where it’s been cold and snowy, that’s going to be a good year for maple syrup.”

Rebekka Coakley is a freelance writer living in State College.

Rebekka Coakley is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.
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