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Maple syrup madness

Autumn Arthur
Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve

(2/8) For real maple syrup enthusiasts, the world as we know it has been forever altered. Vermont Grade B maple syrup is no more! Donít panic: this change is only in name. Thankfully for many of us, the dark, robustly flavored syrup itself remains. Lawmakers in the state that produces nearly half of all of the maple syrup made in the US have voted to abolish Vermontís traditional grading system and instead adopt the international standard. ĎThe Syrup Formerly Known As Grade Bí will know fall under the category of Grade A Dark/Robust Taste. The switch was optional in Vermont in 2014, but mandatory beginning in 2015. New York will also change its grading system in 2015. Maine and New Hampshire are expected to follow suite.

The now-defunct Vermont grading system used the monikers Vermont Fancy, Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber, and Grade B for retail syrup sales. Many thought the old system produced a bias against darker syrups with stronger flavor by creating a hierarchy in the names. Despite the names, there is no difference in quality between Grade A and Grade B syrup. If not quality, then what is the difference? Syrup is graded based on the color of the finished product. The yellow-brown tones of syrup are due to caramelization of sugars during the syrup-making process. The longer the syrup has been heated, the darker and more robust it becomes. Heating times vary for many reasons, including the temperature of the heat source and the length of time needed to remove excess water from the original tree sap.

The international system aims to eliminate the quality misconception. Producers also hope that the change will make Vermont syrup more appealing to international consumers. However, not everyone is in agreement with the change. Some sugarmakers are protesting the new standard, saying that it will dilute the maple syrup branding that is Vermontís claim to fame. Producers that do not adopt the new standard may face fines.

You might think this is all a little too fixated for the sticky sweet stuff we pour over our pancakes, but maple syrup is serious business in New England and Canada. In recent years, the average price for a gallon of real maple syrup in the United States has been as high as $37.40. In 2014, Vermont producers placed 4,270 taps in trees, resulting in 1,320,000 gallons of syrup (42% of national production). Notably, all states except Pennsylvania showed a decrease in production compared to 2013 due to a shorter season of sap flow. In fact, 2014 marked a record high in maple syrup production in PA, with 146,000 gallons.

Last yearís maple sugaring season came late, not officially opening until March 6th. This year, however, taps are already flowing in some trees! Temperature fluctuations between freezing nights and days in the mid-thirties and up create pressure and flow within trees. Sugar, dissolved in water and referred to as sap, that was stored in the treesí roots over winter begins to move skyward in the part of the tree known as the xylem. The sugar will fuel the production of new leaves for spring.

It is into the xylem that sugarmakers place their taps, also known as spiles. Over the course of the season, usually mid-February through mid-March in our region, about 10% of the sap is collected from the tree. The collection doesnít harm the tree, and the same trees can be tapped year after year. When trees begin to bud, the sugaring season is over. At this point, the sap takes on a cloudy color and bitter taste.

Every year, Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve presents maple sugaring programs that allow participants to have a hands-on experience with all facets of the sugaring process. During this 90-minute program, attendees learn the history of maple sugaring and then are led to the forest where they select a tree; drill into it; hang a sap bucket; collect sap; and watch fresh sap being cooked down into syrup before their eyes. Participants even have a chance to taste the finished product.

Strawberry Hill owns a hobbyist sap evaporator which is a smaller version of the professional version that produces syrup so delicious, so sweet, that you wonít believe itís the same product thatís usually purchased in a grocery store. Your taste buds will rejoice and beg for more of this tasty treat! Strawberry Hill demonstrates the boiling process to school classes, home schools, organized groups, Boy and Girl Scout troops, and the general public.

Growing in popularity are the pancake breakfasts which are hosted by Strawberry Hill and held at Camp Eder, 914 Mount Hope Road, Fairfield on the last Saturday in February and the first Saturday in March. This year Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve and Camp Eder invite the public to enjoy their combined festivities at Mount Hope Maple Madness on Saturday, February 28th and March 7th! The days will start with a pancake breakfast from 7:30 Ė 11:30 am. Diners can enjoy the ambience of music provided by local musicians; then they can go into the adjacent room to view and/or purchase crafts from local vendors.

After filling up on pancakes topped with syrupy goodness, folks can participate in a program to learn the process of taking the sap from the tree to the syrup on the table. No reservations are necessary for the breakfast or programs. Programs will begin eavery half hour from 9 am Ė 3 pm. Call the Strawberry Hill office at 717-642-5840 or email info@strawberryhill.org for Mount Hope Maple Madness ticket prices and more information.

If you are a scout leader, teacher, home school organizer, or someone who wants to bring an organized group to experience this fascinating backyard hobby, you can contact Strawberry Hill or visit the website at www.StrawberryHill.org to join one of our weekday programs held between February 9th and March 15th. Each program is suitable for all ages. Itís educational; itís fun; itís a wholesome family activity; and itís good exercise. After participating in the program, participants will have the knowledge needed to do sugaring in their own in their backyard. There will also be maple syrup for sale as well as maple sap collecting kits. Hope to see you in the "sugarbush;" the forest of maple trees, that is!

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