Maple tappers branch out

It’s Maple Weekend across New York State this week, and sugarbush tappers are opening their saphouses to celebrate the harvest. On tap for the weekend: pancake breakfasts, leaf-shaped candies and clear bottles full of sweet amber, a taste of fresh sap out of a bucket. It’s about as traditional as it gets.

But if you look closely, the landscape is shifting. As the climate changes, the trees change too — and tappers follow.

Sugar maple sap flows when the days are warm and sunny, and nights are below freezing. Years ago, back when the almanac was a little more reliable, that meant March. Increasingly, as the shifting climate plays havoc with the signs of spring, it means “whenever the warm weather strikes.” This year, savvy sugarbush operators in the Catskills were tapping as early as mid-January, taking advantage of the streaks of midwinter warmth that have become more the rule than the exception.

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Up here in the Margaretville area, we’ve still got a thick blanket of snow on the ground, and spring is still nowhere to be seen. But when the warm weather does come, it’ll make quick work of the sap. Those who waited until March to start tapping aren’t likely to get much syrup, says John MacNaught, a forester with the Catskill Forest Association in Arkville.

“It’s just going to turn to spring so fast in April, it’s going to be real fast and furious and short-lived and then be done completely,” he says. “I think the people that hit it in January and got that early warm spell did fine. Anybody who waited isn’t going to have a good year.”

It’s hard to say what maple tapping practices will look like in another century or so, or even to predict whether we’ll still have enough sugar maples in U.S. forests to support a $147 million industry. Ecology is a notoriously tricky subject to make predictions in, especially for creatures with lifespans as short as ours. But scientists like Selena Ahmed of ACERnet, an ecologist and ethnobotanist who studies the effect of climate change on traditional foods, are working to understand how the climate is affecting maple production, with the goal of helping tappers to plan for a changing future.

In an ongoing study funded by the Department of Interior’s Northeast Climate Science Center, Ahmed and her team have interviewed maple tappers from Virginia to Quebec. The ACERnet scientists hope to marry their field and lab results with the learned experience of farmers who have spent a lifetime getting to know their land.

The ACERnet research is still ongoing, but what scientists are finding is that it’s not just the season dates that are changing. The sap is changing, too: as the season shortens, the concentration of phenolic compounds in the sap goes up, yielding more of the darker and more flavorful syrups.

Under the old system of grading, which classed syrups as “A,” “B” or “C” depending on how dark they were, the climate-driven shift away from “fancy” lighter syrups might have posed a problem for tappers. But consumer tastes are shifting, too. A couple of years ago, the syrup industry began using descriptive terms like “Dark Color and Robust Flavor” or “Golden Color and Delicate Taste” instead of the old letter grades. The new system gives the rich, delicious B-grade stuff the pride of place it’s always deserved.

Some local tappers are going after new trees entirely —  a strategy that might prove wise in decades to come, if climate change takes a toll on sugar maple populations. For a few years now, local tappers Jody Condon and Mike Porter have been making birch syrup, a ruby-red concoction with a tangy, molasses-like flavor. It’s not something most people would want to pour on pancakes, but it shines in savory dishes, and their Catskill Mountain Birch label has a niche following on Amazon.

Birch syrup is traditional in Alaska, where there is a wealth of local cultural knowledge on how to make and use it. There are other untapped resources in our woods that we have barely begun to explore.

Last year, Margaretville woodworker Gary Mead hammered taps into a few of his sycamores. They yielded a sap that boiled down into a rich, sweet, butterscotch-flavored syrup. Mead thought it had potential, especially for the low-lying Schoharie Valley where water-loving sycamores are more abundant, and he began spreading the word.

Mead’s sycamore syrup got MacNaught’s attention. In April, the Catskill Forest Association plans to host a workshop for curious would-be sycamore tappers. The sycamore workshop was originally planned to coincide with Maple Weekend, but the trees didn’t cooperate; local sycamore tappers are only just beginning to learn how the sap’s flow and flavor react to weather.

So far this year, MacNaught and CFA director Ryan Trapani have tapped 14 sycamore trees, enough to make about a quart of syrup. The syrup they’ve made from the early-flowing sap tastes more like honey — still good, he says, but not exactly ambrosial. MacNaught is hoping that later sap runs might yield more of that divine butterscotch elixir.

“It’s addicting, it’s delicious, it’s candy,” he says.

“Sycamore Syrup – Another Table Syrup?” workshop will be held at 10 a.m., Saturday, April 21, 2018 at the Catskill Forest Association, 43469 Route 28, Arkville, NY. For more information, call (845) 586-3054 or email cfa@catskillforest.org.

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