Introducing Real Maple Syrup to a New Generation

Education for a bright future in Pennsylvania
By Sally Colby

After the Girl Scouts returned with sap, Chuck Reid poured it into the evaporator and explained how the syrup becomes more concentrated as it moves through the channels.
Photos by Sally Colby.
Experienced maple syrup producers have a lot to think about just prior to the sugaring season: how many trees they'll tap; where those trees are; the most efficient way to run lines; when to collect; and how to limit wildlife damage. For those who don't know anything about maple syrup production, it's a matter of starting with the basics. Although 2012 will likely be remembered as the year that was too warm for serious sugaring, winter in southern Pennsylvania was cold enough to educate youth and adults about maple syrup.

At Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve and Environmental Center (, children and adults can learn about the maple syrup process from start to finish. Staff and volunteers at this 609-acre education and conservation organization nestled at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Fairfield, Pa., are dedicated to teaching others about the natural world through hands-on activities year-round.

On a balmy day in mid-February, a group of Girl Scouts assembled at Strawberry Hill to learn about one of nature's tastiest miracles: maple syrup. After greeting the scouts and their parents, naturalist Kay Deardorff told a tale about the start of maple sugaring.

"There's a legend that says that an Indian chief threw his tomahawk against a tree and left it there," said Deardorff. "The next day, after he pulled it out of the tree, his squaw noticed that liquid was flowing from where the chief's tomahawk was. She placed a bucket at the base of the tree to collect the 'tree water' and used it to make dinner that night. The chief complimented her on a very tasty meal."

Whether the legend is true or not doesn't matter, although it does make a great story. What matters is that a new generation of young people - most of whom likely grew up pouring artificially flavored syrup on pancakes and waffles - is learning how real maple syrup tastes.

Deardorff starts with an explanation of the modern sugaring process. "Instead of a tomahawk, we use a spile," she said. "But before we can do that, we have to drill a hole." She showed the group the tools of the trade - spile, brace and bit, pails and lids - and talked about how each is used. She explained that tree water is mostly just that, water, and showed them the hydrometer that can be used to measure sugar as the liquid boils.

Before heading out to tap trees and collect sap, the group sampled pancakes topped with a variety of commercial syrups and maple syrup. They were instructed to choose their favorite and challenged to see if they could identify the real maple syrup. Not surprisingly, many who sampled what Deardorff referred to as 'pancake toppings' chose commercially made, artificially flavored corn syrup products as their favorite simply because they had never tried real maple syrup.

Next, Deardorff reviewed basic maple tree identification, and then led the group to a grove of trees. Once a maple tree was positively identified, mostly by way of a maple leaf cutout tacked to the trunk, Deardorff talked about the timing of maple sugaring. "We know that this time of the year is the best time," she said. "In another week or two, the tree will start to need the sap as food for leaves." After a simple review of photosynthesis, Deardorff explained that once the tree buds, the sap is no longer clear and the tree will need it. "What we're taking today was produced last year," she said. "The tree stored those sugars in the roots, and soon the sap starts to flow up the tree."

Emily Cost (left), environmental education coordinator at Strawberry Hill, works with naturalist Kay Deardorff to explain the use of a hydrometer for measuring the density of maple syrup.

The group was instructed to locate the north side of the tree by looking for moss growing on the bark, and to place the tap on the opposite side. Deardorff finds a spot on the trunk that hasn't been tapped and shows the group how to use the brace and bit to prepare the hole for the spile.

After the spile was started, participants had a chance to tap it gently into the tree. As the spile went it, liquid gushed from the tree, and Deardorff invited the group to stick their fingers under the stream for a taste. She reminded them that the 'tree water' was mostly water - about 98 percent - and that it wouldn't taste much like syrup until it was boiled down. They hung a lidded pail and moved to the next tree.

The tree was already tapped, and the bucket had collected quite a bit of liquid throughout the day. As the group marveled at how much liquid was in the pail, Emily Cost, environmental education coordinator at Strawberry Hill, talked about and showed the plastic tubing that larger producers use to collect sap from multiple trees.

After collecting several buckets of sap, the group headed back to the center to learn about the rest of the process. Strawberry Hill's Executive Director Chuck Reid explained that the evaporator used at the nature center is similar to what a large-scale producer would use, except that it is smaller. "The sugar water comes in cold," said Reid, explaining that the fire arch supports the evaporator and provides heat. "There's a fire in the box that heats the pan. The heat goes up underneath the pan and boils the sap."

Taste testing pancakes with selected commercial pancake toppings, and for many a taste of real maple syrup for the first time.
As Reid poured cold, fresh sap into a compartment, he explained how the more concentrated sap separates from the fresh sap. "A producer who has 1,000 or more taps along with tubing might get anywhere between 30 and 100 gallons of sap on a good flow day," he said. "We started with 3 gallons this morning, and now we're finishing it. " Reid explained that both taste testing and science can be used to determine when syrup is finished, adding that the syrup at Strawberry Hill is dark amber because it's from red maples that have lower sugar content, and that slow cooking also contributes to a darker color.

Reid points out that Strawberry Hill's location is fairly southern and not home to a lot of sugaring operations, but that the focus of the program is educating people about the process. "People have a better appreciation for the cost of real maple syrup," he said. "There are a lot of hours involved in putting taps out, collecting, boiling."

By the end of the program, both young people and adults understand the process behind maple sugaring. They've hiked in the woods, identified trees, collected and helped boil sap. Even though they may never try sugaring on their own, there's a good chance they will purchase real maple syrup.

The author is a frequent contributor and freelance writer who farms and raises Great Pyrenees in south-central Pennsylvania.