Tapping Into Tradition
by Candace Nelson
Appalachia has always been sweet on maple syrup.
For hundreds of years, the sweetener has been a part of communities – whether production, commerce, or maple syrup consumption. Legend tells us that Native Americans, specifically Cherokees, threw hot rocks into hollowed-out logs filled with sap to unearth the sweet stuff. Early colonial settlers quickly learned sugar making, slowly boiling sap in a pan over fire until most of the water in the sap evaporated into the air and left behind thick maple syrup.
The weather dictates much of the labor-intensive maple syrup process, which means unpredictable timing and yield. The season can last a few weeks up to a few months – or not even happen at all.
Today, the process might look a little different.
Family Roots Farm, located in Wellsburg, West Virginia, typically begins tapping their trees each year in February by drilling a small hole into a tree and inserting a tap.
Early spring is usually the sweet spot for maple production because freezing temperatures at night and thawing temperatures during the day create a cycle of pressure that draws water and dissolves sugars up through the tree to the buds and allows the sap to flow out of the tap.
Each tap has a bucket hanging from it or thick tubing that relies on gravity to help sap flow downhill and feed into a large tank to make the collection more accessible. For taps that utilize buckets, it’s essential to keep an eye on them. They can fill up within a day – or sometimes more quickly. At this point, the maple sap is mostly clear water with about 2% sugar content.
Once all sap water is collected, it is then immediately boiled. Because the sap holds a lot of water, it could spoil and go to waste if not prepared in a timely fashion. The boiling process removes all the water and what is leftover is the syrup. Then, it runs through a traditional wool filter – or a press – and is finally bottled just in time for Sunday morning pancakes.
It takes approximately 50 gallons of sap water to produce one gallon of syrup. That’s a lot of sap – and a lot of trees.
Appalachia is home to a large population of sugar maples; West Virginia even named it the state tree. Those sugar maples are critical to syrup. While all maple trees produce the sweet sap that can turn into syrup, typically, only the sugar maple and black maple are tapped due to the high sugar content.
Sugar maples thrive at higher elevations, around 3,000-5,500 feet, and can be found from eastern Canada and down through Appalachia into North Carolina and Tennessee.
Census records back to the 18th-century note maple syrup production in 26 Appalachian counties across southwest Virginia, West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and eastern Tennessee.
Maple syrup production in Appalachia has a longstanding history because syrup production was necessary. There were few options for sweeteners and even less so for communities isolated from transportation or other people. Sugaring provided jobs and income for the many Appalachians who had little more than their land.
While maple production is less prominent than it once was through Appalachia, a resurgence in recent years reveals its importance to the region.
The cultural influence of maple syrup in Appalachian communities is evident through street names like “Maple Hill,” official state tree symbols like the Sugar Maple, and farmers market stands that sell leaf-shaped bottles on the side of the road.
The sweet history of maple syrup in Appalachia spans centuries and continues its impact on our economy, our lifestyle, and, of course, our sugar maples – for the better.
Family Roots Farm
Homesteaded by Henry Hervey in the 1770s, Family Roots Farm has passed through eight generations of the Hervey family. The family began selling its maple syrup in 2013 and not only produced pure maple syrup to sale, but also maple nuts, pure maple sugar, maple cotton candy, and other products. At the 2015 International Maple Conference, Family Roots Farm received first place for their Maple Sugar and their Maple Syrup received a perfect score. They still receive blue ribbons of excellence for their maple products. Below is a favorite family recipe.
Recipe: Maple Walnut Blonde Brownies
1/2 cup Family Roots Farm Maple Syrup
½ cup Family Roots Farm Maple Sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 ⅓ cups chopped walnuts, divided
11 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a 9×9-inch baking pan with parchment paper or foil and add the nuts in one layer. Toast the nuts in the oven for 5 – 7 minutes. Let cool. In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the butter. Stir in the Family Roots Farm Maple Sugar and cook 2 – 3 minutes, stirring often until the sugar is mostly dissolved. Stir in Family Roots Farm Maple Syrup. Remove from heat. Pour the mixture into a large mixing bowl and let cool. Stir in the salt, egg, and vanilla by hand. Stir in the flour and baking soda. Stir in 1 cup of walnuts. Spoon into the pan and spread evenly from edge to edge. Bake 22 – 25 minutes until lightly golden and almost set in the center – a slight jiggle is ok when the pan is shaken. Cool in pan on a wire rack.
Icing for Maple Walnut Blonde Brownies:
1 tablespoon Family Roots Farm Maple Syrup
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
Add Family Roots Farm Maple Syrup to a small bowl, whisk in the vanilla and confectioners’ sugar. Add more sugar if needed to make a thin glaze. Drizzle over the cake and sprinkle the top with the remaining walnuts. Lift the blondies out of the pan using the parchment onto a cutting board. Slice into bars. Store tightly covered in a cool, dry place for up to 5 days.