Sugaring season has arrived
By DIANA SHARP
Spring means many things to many people … budding flowers, the return of migratory birds, and for a few dedicated, hard-working individuals, like Steve Shasky, it means the flow of sweet sap from Ohio’s Maple trees.
The popularity of real maple syrup during early American history centered around the demand for sugar. Back then, sap was boiled down to make a sugar loaf that was easily shipped on boats to meet the demand.
“It was called loaf sugar. You boiled almost all the water out. The idea was … (in the colonies) you had honey sorghum or molasses and maple sugar. Those were the three sweeteners until the slave trade kicked in and the sugar started coming from the Indies. …Well, if you were on the frontier, envision the Great Lakes … all the production for maple syrup is around the Great Lakes,” explained Shasky recently as he was preparing to boil. He added, at that time, there was always a demand for sugar, so it was a profitable venture for a frontiersman or early settlers.
It’s not as easy as tapping a tree and hanging a bucket. There is a lot of care and effort that goes into producing quality maple syrup, then and now. In fact, it is a tricky crop dependent on weather and the relative short season in which one must collect the sap.
The sugaring season begins in late winter or early spring, Presidents’ Day until the end of March according to Shasky. Optimal conditions occur when the temperature is below freezing at night and above freezing during the day, creating internal pressure that causes the sap to flow through the tree. Sugar season is over when the buds begin to swell and the sap develops an off flavor.
“Prime syrup weather is 20s and 40s. In the 20s and night and in the 40s during the days,” explained Shasky, who owns Steve’s Ski Shop, 2583 Possum Run Rd., near Snow Trails. These temperatures are ideal for the sap to run. It is a clear liquid that is two percent sugar and 98 percent water. Producers boil 60 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup.
A grove of sugar trees is called a “sugarbush.” Shasky taps around 700 trees and boils for himself and a friend who taps around 400 trees. He considers himself a commercial producer who sells bulk syrup and some retail. This is compared with commercial producers in New England who average around 50,000 trees.
Any sizable sugaring operation occurs in a sugar-house, a building designed to vent the enormous amount of steam that is produced by the condensing syrup. Shasky says he calls his shack a palace. “You won’t find most shacks with drywall,” laughed Shasky. He went on to describe that most sugar shacks can be very “rustic.”
Sugaring is the process in which the sap is boiled down and converted to syrup, at which point it’s about 67 percent sugar and 33 percent water.
“To me syrup-ing is a logistics issue. Everybody’s woods is different — nothing is steady state. This year is different from another year … It’s farming,” explained Shasky. He went on to describe the intricacies of sugaring. It’s a race against bacteria from tree to evaporator. One doesn’t want to let the sugar water sit too long for fear the growth of bacteria will eat the sugar your trying to syrup. Likewise once the water makes it’s way to an evaporator there is the temperature and flow to maintain as the water is evaporated. After boiling, the syrup is filtered, graded, and bottled.
Shasky prefers fancy grade syrup which has understated maple notes and a rich flavor unlike any dark or amber syrup. Shasky says his wife Cindy prefers the darker syrup. Regardless of the grade, taste is in the preparation, how quickly the water makes its way to the evaporator and the regulation of temperature in the sugaring process.
The Shaskys sell their syrup, which is available now at the Ski Shop and at the Village of Bellville’s Farmers’ Market.
Shasky hopes to grow his operation; after all, he admittedly has the sugar bug. He is a member of the Ohio Maple Producers Association (OMPA).
“Everyone’s syrup is different. It’s in how each one boils their water,” said Shasky. He welcomes anyone to stop out to try his product. It’s an expensive passion and he takes pride in his syrup that he and his wife produce.
For more information concerning the entire driving tour visit http://www.ohiomaple.org/maple-madness.html.