Hillsboro Middle School teacher Len Coryea spent a class period presenting to a younger crowd than usual April 11.
Coryea was at Hillsboro Elementary School telling fourth-grade social studies students about the work that goes into making maple syrup. The presentation was part of the class’ studies of the eastern United States. Western Pennsylvania is about the farthest southwest that maple syrup can be produced practically. The trees need temperatures below freezing at night and above freezing during the day for a long season to produce the sweet sap required for maple syrup, he said.
Coryea grew up in Pennsylvania, where he helped his uncle and cousins collect sugar maple sap for maple syrup. The process for collecting sap has changed significantly in the years since Coryea was a regular helper. His uncle and cousins continue to make syrup as a hobby business.
As a child, Coryea carried buckets of sap from trees fitted with simple gravity taps. Now his uncle uses a network of collection tubes and a diesel-powered motor to pump sap from trees to waiting tanks.
The sap that is collected from the trees bears little resemblance to the finished product: the sap is thin, mostly clear, and only slightly sweet. Before processing, the sap is about 8 to 9 percent sugar.
Processing is mostly concerned with reducing the water content until the syrup is about 67 percent sugar. The process begins by using a technique called reverse osmosis, followed by boiling water out of the sap. Boiling the sap is the step that requires the most care, because if the sugar burns, the whole batch is ruined, including the pan it was boiling in, Coryea said.
After boiling, the syrup has the full sweetness of maple syrup, but its consistency is gritty, so Coryea’s relatives have to filter out the maple sugar “sand” before bottling their syrup. From trees to bottle, it takes 50 to 55 gallons of sap to make a single jug of syrup, he said.
The students in Rod Just’s social studies class had several questions about the process of collecting the sap. Asked about how long a tree can continuously provide sap, Coryea told the class his relatives will collect sap from a tree for three or four days before giving it a rest to recover. With proper recovery time, a tree can provide sap every winter as long as it remains healthy.
The number of taps installed in a tree depend on the size of the tree. A tree needs to be at least 10 inches in diameter to have just one tap. A tree with an 18 inch diameter can have a second tap, and a tree with a diameter 21 inches or more can have a third tap.
Coryea said his uncle estimated that he has produced about 600 gallons of syrup this year, with the season mostly over. That’s enough for a whole lot of pancakes.