Tap dance

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BURTON, Ohio – When there is little to do except plow snow, fix equipment or work on income taxes, the sugar bush beckons.
Cold nights and warming days send the maple sap shooting silently up from the roots, providing maple syrup producers with a great excuse to escape to the woods and harvest the first crop of the new year.
Although this year’s unseasonably warm January worried some northeast Ohio producers, the below-freezing temperatures of the last month make it likely that pancake and waffle lovers can count on a good local crop of fresh syrup.
In 2006, Ohio, which ranks fifth in the nation, produced about 78,000 gallons of maple syrup. More than half of that comes out of Geauga County, but Trumbull, Ashtabula, Medina, Holmes and other counties also contribute thousands of gallons of the sweet treat.
Tradition. “We have a lot of maple syrup tradition here,” said Les Ober, program assistant in the Geauga County office of the Ohio State University Extension service.
The transition from winter to spring takes longer than in more southern regions due to the climatic influence of Lake Erie. This gives producers weeks of sap flow and results in a longer syrup season.
The industry accounts for more than $1 million in Geauga County – the lion’s share of nearly $2 million industry in northeast Ohio, Ober said.
Growing interest. “Most counties saw an increase in the number of producers from 1997 to 2002,” he said.
During that time, he said the region’s taps rose from 83,000 to more than 111,000.
“Production is on the rise.”
He’s seeing even more interest in producing maple syrup in the last few years, with increasing attendance at workshops and seminars. Nearly 250 producers attended Maple Days in Ohio in January.
High and low tech. Ober attributes the growth in the culture to new technology.
For centuries, the tapping and collection from buckets was labor intensive. In the last 30 years, the use of plastic tubing, vacuum collection, reverse osmosis techniques and improved evaporators has made it possible for anyone with 10 acres of maple trees to make syrup with minimal labor costs.
“People kind of get hooked on the process when they get into it,” Ober said.
It is a late winter pastime that keeps evolving as materials improve and sugar bush operators develop their forestry resources.
“This new tubing has gotten better and better,” Ober said, since most tappers broke away from the traditional bucket system and started experimenting.
“It’s smoother, cleaner and there’s less stretch to it.”
Tube system. Each maple tree in the sugar bush has several taps drilled with tubing attached to each. The tubes are connected in a series that ends in a tank at the sugarhouse. A vacuum pump draws the sap to a holding tank.
When the evaporator is fired up and steam rises, 43 gallons of sap is boiled down to one gallon of pure, sweet Ohio maple syrup.
Getting started. Brothers Chris and Jason Grossman will be initiating their new sugarhouse this spring on the family farm on Claridon Troy Road in Claridon.
For some years they have been working a sugar bush on the property of Chris’ brother-in-law Scott Boehnlein of Chardon. They decided they wanted to set up shop on the Grossman Tree Farm, so they started developing the sugar bush with their father, Art.
They raised the frame of their 16-by-32 foot handcrafted, timber framed sugarhouse in October 2005. The 600-gallon feeder tank is housed in a loft with the Dallaire CDI Inc. evaporator below heated with wood.
They plan to start tapping March 1.
Not for the lazy. “Developing a sugar bush takes a lot of off-season work,” said Chris, who is a paramedic and firefighter with the City of Wickliff and volunteers with the Chardon Fire Department.
The brothers used the trails they had carved through the wood over the years and chose 10 acres that contained the best selection of maples. Sugar maples yield sap that has roughly twice the sugar content of other maples.
“We thinned out the larger trees,” he said, to give the maples they wanted to tap more space. They also took down a lot of grapevines and generally cleared the area so tapping would run smoothly.
Most of the trees they plan to tap will be in groups connected by the tubing, Chris said. They still use buckets on outlying trees that are hard to get to.
This year they hope to start with 300 to 500 taps and figure they will produce about 100 gallons of syrup, if nature cooperates. Syrup sells from $25 to $42 a gallon and Grossmans expect to get around $32 a gallon.
They plan to increase the number of taps and amount of syrup each year.
But the quality of the operation is a valuable addition to the family operation and Grossmans are looking to the future.
“We want this to last 150 to 200 years.”
Buying local. Most producers don’t sell bulk syrup, Ober said, but typically build a local a clientele and usually sell everything they can bottle.
There is such demand for syrup that Ober urges producers to keep tapping and bottling as long into the season as they can.
The industry shows signs of broadening, as well. Maple sugar is becoming more popular as a substitute for refined sugar, Ober said.
“It’s all natural, hasn’t been highly processed and could easily go organic,” he said.
But the most addicting product he’s run across is maple butter.
“If you get hooked on that, it’s worse than drugs,” Ober said.
See for yourself. The Grossmans’ sugar house and 24 others in northeastern Ohio are on the 2007 Maple Madness Sweet Weekends Drive-It-Yourself Tour from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 10 and 17 (see related article on page B1).
For more information go to www.tourgeauga.com or call the Geauga County Tourism Council at 800-775-TOUR (8687).

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