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Maple syrup flows freely at events throughout Western Pa. | TribLIVE.com
Food & Drink

Maple syrup flows freely at events throughout Western Pa.

Deborah Wesiberg
| Friday, March 4, 2016 5:06 p.m
ptrlivmaple030516
Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania
A pioneer boils maple sap so that it will become maple syrup. Participants in Audubon’s Maple Madness take a guided walk on Audubon’s trails to learn about the history of maple sugaring.

Springtime’s sweetness soon will be flowing at maple syrup festivals throughout Western Pennsylvania.

The fun begins March 6 with free maple-sugaring demonstrations at Crooked Creek Environmental Learning Center near Ford City in Armstrong County.

“It’s a popular program we’ve been doing for years,” says Crooked Creek program coordinator Dennis Hawley. “Some people come just to buy syrup and other products, including taps they can use in their own backyard.”

Other events are scheduled elsewhere in the region through mid-April, including two in Somerset County, which, with 93 sugar camps, is the largest maple-producing county in Pennsylvania. Maple Weekend Taste and Tour will be held throughout the county March 12-13, and the 69th Annual Maple Festival is set for April 2-3 and April 6-10 in Meyersdale.

Maple Weekend is a self-guided tour of more than a dozen producers of syrup and related products, such as candies and spreads, and a re-created 1860s sugar camp at the Somerset Historical Center.

Sponsored by the Somerset County Maple Producers Association, the tour will give visitors an up-close look at how sap is tapped and then reduced to syrup through a boiling and evaporation process. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup, according to association president Everett Sechler, a fifth-generation sugar maker whose ancestors were producing syrup in Somerset County before the Civil War.

Sechler Sugar Shack in Confluence uses vacuums and tubing and reverse osmosis to produce syrup from 2,400 trees. In a nod to tradition, Sechler and other sugar farmers also tap a few trees with old-fashioned spiles and sap buckets.

“Each camp has its own personality,” Sechler says. “There’s nostalgia in a quiet sugar camp, but you get three times greater production out of vacuums and tubing.”

Typically, trees are ready to be tapped when daytime temperatures rise above freezing, causing sap to flow through an outer portion of the trunk that conducts water and nutrients from the roots to the branches, according to Cornell University’s Maple Program. Below-freezing temperatures at night allow trees to replenish sap. The freeze-thaw cycle is vital to sap production.

Sugaring season is as short as it is sweet, running anywhere from three to six weeks.

It came early this year, and the yield has been good so far, Sechler says. “You like to see a colder December and January, but the mild winter hasn’t affected productivity. We’re getting syrup with a wonderful flavor.”

Syrups can range from light golden, which is mild-tasting, to very dark and robust. Amber is somewhere in the middle and the most popular variety for pouring on pancakes, Sechler says.

Sugaring has a long history in this country, dating to Native Americans, who, according to legend, discovered sap when the chief of a tribe threw a tomahawk into a tree, and then used hot rocks to cook what they called the sweet or magic water. Colonists adapted the process by boiling syrup in iron pots.

Sugaring through the centuries will be on display when the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania holds its 15th annual Maple Madness on March 12 at Succop Nature Park in Butler and March 19 at Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve in Fox Chapel.

Those events will feature a pancake-and-sausage breakfast, followed by a lesson in tree anatomy and a hike through time, says Audubon Executive Director Jim Bonner. “Hikers will stop at various stations to see sugaring re-enacted in different eras, from pre-Colonial through the Great Depression to modern day. We’ll also have a shack where the sap is boiled down.”

For some communities, the sugaring tradition has evolved into larger celebrations aimed at breaking cabin fever and welcoming spring.

The 39th annual Beaver County Maple Syrup Festival will be April 2-3 at Brady’s Run Park in the county park in Fallston. It will include an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast with pure maple syrup, Civil War re-enactments, arts and crafts vendors, children’s tent and live entertainment. Admission and parking are free.

The 69th annual Maple Festival in Meyersdale, Somerset County, will kick off that same weekend and continue from April 6-10, when the town pays homage to the county’s most important industry. In 2012, Somerset sugar camps produced close to 27,000 gallons of syrup with a $1 million-plus market value, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.

“Meyersdale is transformed into maple city in early April,” says Ron Aldom, executive director of the Somerset County Chamber of Commerce. “People will see a quaint town with a charming Main Street, a definite Amish presence and lots of activities.”

Highlights will include vendors and exhibits in Festival Park; the Legend of the Magic Water — a play about the history of sugaring — at Meyersdale High School; and a pancake breakfast served by the Meyersdale Lions Club all day, every festival day, in the Meyersdale Community Center.

All kinds of maple-based foods will be on sale during the festival, including spotza, a treat made by pouring boiled syrup over crushed ice to form soft taffy. Spotza comes from the Pennsylvania Dutch and means “spot on the snow” — although it is said to date to when Native Americans poured hot syrup on snow.

Deborah Weisberg is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

Categories: Food Drink
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