A culinary treat that’s often taken for granted, we wanted to pop the cap off the maple syrup world and learn the ins and outs from an expert, Chris Nicholas of Heath Run Maple ProductsLocated in the heart of Potter County Pennsylvania, Heath Run Maple Products is family owned and operated, proudly producing some of the best tasting maple products using traditional and sustainable methods.

How did you get into the maple syrup business?

I grew up on a farm and made a small amount of syrup on the kitchen stove as a kid just wanting to do it as an experiment.  I grew up outdoors and have always been connected to the outdoors.  I chose to pursue a career in Forestry so I have continued to be quite connected to the forest even in my adulthood.  My wife grew up on an apple orchard so she has also enjoyed being outdoors and producing home grown products for the local communities.  When we bought our property in 2008, we knew there was a sugar maple resource on it that we could do something with.  We started out just doing this as a family affair.  It started out as family afternoons cooking sap until sometime in the wee hours of the morning we finally had delicious maple syrup.  We love being together outside working as a family. We love even more being able to put a delicious natural product on our table.

Our 3 children, Madelyn, William and Henry, are vital to our farm and we believe that giving them opportunity to help us lets them develop skills that they will use for their entire life.  We did some research into making maple syrup commercially and visited several local producers and listened and learned from them.  We decided in 2012 to make the leap and try to get inspected by the Dept. of Ag to produce commercially.  We started with about 225 trees tapped that year. Today, we have approximately 20 acres with 1100 trees tapped and a tubing system that is connected to a vacuum system.   

Can you explain the timeline of production, from tapping to a final product?

We generally tap in mid-late February.  Once the trees are tapped we are waiting on the right weather to make the sap run.  We need above freezing days and below freezing nights.  Days around 40 – 50 and nights in the mid to upper 20’s are perfect.  Once the sap runs we collect it and cook it usually within 24 hours of collecting it.  We store the syrup in bulk containers until we are ready to bottle it.  The typical maple season in Potter County runs from late February to early April.

What are some characteristics the average consumer can look for to know they’re using a high quality maple syrup?

I would say flavor is your best indicator of quality.  A lot of customers make comments about the flavor of our syrup compared to other producers.  Our cooking methods do not use reverse osmosis or a filter press.  We are devoted to using these traditional methods because we believe it makes a better product.  In our opinion, when you speed up the process or add other things into the syrup it can change the final product.  Anyone would be happy to serve our maple syrup and we guarantee you will like it. Most producers don’t use wood as a fuel source.  Our evaporator was custom made, built locally and is fueled by the renewable resource of wood.  By producing the traditional way, there is more flavor and in our opinion more quality to our product.

What are a few odd facts about maple syrup production that you feel the average consumer may not know?

It is very labor intensive.  It takes about 30 minutes to produce a gallon of syrup with our system.  That doesn’t include collecting the sap, maintaining the tubing or bottling the final product for sale.  That is why producers use things like reverse osmosis to increase their production by reducing the cooking time and fuel cost per gallon of syrup.  We feel our traditional methods make a better quality product so we are committed to keeping with them.

Maple syrup is only made in 13 states and two provinces in Canada.  Quebec is by far the largest producer of maple syrup and Vermont is second largest producer and the leading producer of maple syrup in the USA.  Pennsylvania is usually the 5th or 6th largest producer of syrup in the US.

There are several other products that can be made directly from maple syrup.  The most common are maple candy, maple cream, and granulated maple sugar. Granulated maple sugar can be used to replace processed sugar in recipes at 1/2 the rate the recipe calls for.  So if the recipe calls for 1 cup you can use 1/2 cup of maple sugar and get the same results plus it is healthier for you.

What are some maple production practices being used that are harmful to the environment that Heath Run avoids? What do you do instead, to produce on a sustainable level?

The big thing is tapping guidelines.  We only put one tap in trees between 10 & 20 inches in diameter and two taps in trees over 20 inches in diameter. Quite a few producers tap a lot heavier than that. By moving the tap holes over 2 inches and 6 – 12 inches above or below the previous years’ tap hole each year, by the time you work the tap holes around the tree there is new wood grown where you tapped the first time.  It takes approximately 15 years to tap the whole way around a 10 inch diameter tree.  In 15 years a tree will grow around 2 inches in diameter on average.  This is sustainable tapping.  Each time you tap a tree it causes a wound.  By minimizing the times you tap you reduce the risk of secondary problems entering the tree through these wounds.  I have to look hard to find the tap holes on a lot of trees the following year so they generally heal very quickly.  The other benefit is that as the tree heals it generates what is called wounded wood that is stained and doesn’t produce sap as efficiently as new wood.  With these sustainable tapping methods, you do not put tap holes into anything but new wood and thus increase your production of sap.

Do you have any favorite unconventional ways to enjoy/consume the syrup?

Here are a few:

  • put it on vanilla ice cream
  • use it to sweeten ice tea
  • use it to sweeten coffee or hot tea
  • put it on cereal, oatmeal or cream of wheat
  • use it in apple pie as a replacement for granulated sugar

Come try Heath Run Maple Products and discover many more delicious, artisanal and responsible products at the country’s largest, locally focused food and drink festival, Philly Farm & Food Fest, on Saturday, April 8 at the PA Convention Center in Philadelphia. Tickets available here and at the door.