Maryland maple farms offer syrup, pure and simple

Friday, February 26, 2010

WHY: Sappy demo, a family of syrupers and pancakes to flip over.

HOW FAR: About 60 miles from start to finish, and about 145 miles from Washington.

In a few days to weeks, the trees in Western Maryland will start blooming . . . buckets.

As maple syrup season nears, producers in Garrett County are readying their tapping equipment for harvesting time, which runs from the end of this month through April. The sap starts to flow during the spring thaw, when the combination of mineral-rich soil and temperate weather yields exceptionally rich and sweet syrup. (Quick dendrology lesson: Sap is the sugary water that circulates in a tree after it wakes up from a cold winter.)

Roughly 30 syrup makers cluster in the mountains and valley around Deep Creek Lake, which is thick with indigenous groves of sugar and red maples. They farm the sap the old-fashioned way, by tapping holes into the sides of trees and arranging a system of rubber tubes or steel buckets to move and amass the sap. Many of them collect the liquid gold by hand, hauling heavy buckets to the evaporation room. To produce a gallon of syrup, they must boil down 40 gallons of sap. Consider that the next time you smother your pancakes in syrup.

Steyer Brothers Farm is the largest producer in Western Maryland as well as the oldest: Last year, it celebrated its 100th anniversary. In a good year, the family-run operation (Grandma still lends a hand) squeezes out about 1,000 gallons of syrup. They sell the sticky amber substance for $7 a pint or $30 a gallon. The price tag is higher than such mass-produced syrups as Aunt Jemima, but compare labels before you go cheap: Major brands may contain less than 2 percent maple syrup; the local liquid is 100 percent pure.

"The syrup here is special because of the soil and the weather," said Randall Steyer, who runs the 100-acre farm with his wife, teenage daughters and other relatives. "You'd be surprised at how much of this stuff we sell to Vermont."

-- Ben Chapman

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