Trees are tapped, sap is flowing and evaporators are evaporating all over northwestern Pennsylvania: It’s time once again for the annual Maple Taste and Tour weekend.
The event, now featuring 19 sugar houses, is in its 16th year and has become a more dependable herald of the end of winter to some than that other event near the central part of the state starring a certain well known rodent.
“It’s a good time to get out of the house after some cabin fever during the winter,” said Chris Casbohm of Casbohm Maple and Honey in Albion, “and it comes at a nice time for folks to be thinking about spring.”
Spread throughout Crawford and Erie counties and with stops in Warren and Venango counties and just across the border in Chautauqua County, New York, the free tour allows visitors to sample maple syrup and a wide variety of other maple products. Many stops will include kids activities as well, and maple products of all sorts, from the familiar syrup to the more exotic maple lemonade or maple peanut butter, will be available for purchase.
In addition, participants will have a chance to see the maple production process up close, from taps and tubing for collection to the evaporators inside the sugar houses that boil 43 gallons of down to a single gallon of finished syrup.
Visitors will find a warm and welcome atmosphere inside the sugar houses, Casbohm said. Syrup makers are ready to explain the secrets behind the sweet treat responsible for improving so many pancake breakfasts each year and the process that takes raw sap from a sugar content of 2 percent to the 67 percent sugar content in the jugs of maple syrup for sale — the perfect level for preventing both crystallization and spoilage, according to Casbohm.
“It’s like having an open house at your house and having two or three hundred people stop by,” he said of the two-day event.
Such a prospect could be daunting for new participants, but Anthony Honeycutt is looking forward to showing off one of the newest facilities featured on the tour.
Honeycutt is the agricultural education teacher and FFA adviser at Northwestern High School in Albion, and his students will sell the maple syrup, maple nuts and other maple products they have produced using sap from the nearly 250 trees they have tapped, most of them on school property. They’ll even have maple cotton candy, maple slushies and maple sundaes for the occasion, Honeycutt said.
Best of all, the students will show off the recently complete sugar house that Northwestern added with the help of a $25,000 grant and about $75,000 raised from community sponsors.
“I’m tickled for people to come out and see what the students are doing,” Honeycutt said.
The facility is fully inspected, with the agriculture program’s 140 students learning a variety of entrepreneurial skills needed to operate a business, from collection of the raw commodity, to processing the finished product, packaging it and then marketing and selling the syrup each year, he said.
“It’s not a ton, but it’s a good amount,” Honeycutt said of the finished syrup. “It keeps us busy. Hopefully when we get under full production we’ll be making about 1,000 gallons.”
Honeycutt recommended that anyone who has been deterred from taking part in the Maple Taste and Tour in the past give Northwestern’s operation a chance. The facility is fully Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant and is located close to a school parking lot. While some older and larger sugar houses on the tour advise visitors to wear boots for their visit, Honeycutt said that won’t be a concern at the school.
“This is not your typical back-in-the-woods sugar shack. It’s more like a commercial facility,” he said. “It’s pretty nice.”
With 19 sugar houses participating, a wide range of facilities will be represented, from Northwestern's brand new, small-scale sugar shack to more established syrup producers with thousands of trees connected to vacuum-tube collection systems. Several old school examples of bucket collection are also featured on the tour, including Shumake’s Sugar Shack in Albion, where 400 buckets are collected with the help of a team of draft horses.
Like the dozens of pancake options available at IHOP, there will be styles of syrup production to fit everyone’s taste.
Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.