By Jim Krencik
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — SHELBY — The golden temperature range that causes sap to come running out of maple trees was unobtainable Saturday afternoon, but the sugarhouses at maple farms across the state were busy with activity.
Maple Weekend, the annual, two-week celebration of the state’s booming maple industry, began Saturday with tastings, tours and educational sessions.
Hundreds of cabin fever-stricken visitors packed into tree-filled locations like Flyway Farm in Shelby, where the event continues today and next weekend.
Jason and Bridget Wagner of Niagara Falls drove out to Flyway Farm before hitting the two Niagara County stops — Wolf Maple Products in Middleport and Niagara Forestry in Cambria — on the way home. They’ve wanted to take their children, Emma, 4, and Ethan, 2, to see tree tapping.
“Both of our kids are old enough that we can do this in the cold,” Jason said. “They love pancakes,” — an assertion that Emma quickly agreed with.
“Now we can show where the syrup come from.”
Pat and Terry Laubisch have been a part of Maple Weekend since the beginning, hosting a growing number of visitors at their West Shelby Road farm.
Pat spoke with pride from behind a table packed with maple sugar treats like cookies, candies and maple-coated pretels. Flyway Farm’s maple syrup has taken six medals in each of the past two state fairs to go with a Best in Show prize from 2008.
Although she and her husband were bundled up, they enjoyed speaking face to face with curious visitors.
“I like it better (when it’s cold),” Pat said. “We can talk with everyone and they are all so excited to come out.”
Debbie and Jeff Washburn of Cheektowaga bundled into the sugarhouse a few minutes after the Wagners. They traveled to Shelby to pick up their annual supply of extra dark maple syrup, which they agreed had a stronger flavor than lighter varieties.
“We use it on pancakes, we want to taste the maple,” Debbie said.
It wasn’t hard to find that taste at the event hosted by Heidi and Jason Wolf. The air in their sugarhouse was thick with the sweet, sticky feel of syrup, and the hands of patrons were filled with everything from hot dogs boiled in a maple mixture and maple-coated popcorn to maple-flavored donuts and soda.
“Maple has it’s own flavor, but it mixes well with other flavors,” said Jason, who was stationed near his oil-fired evaporator to offer an explanation of the syrup-making process and to see patrons’ reactions to the pure flavor of locally made syrup. “I like to watch people tasting it, and see the ‘wows!’ “
Among those getting a taste at the sugarhouse and more for back at home were Jenneifer Allis of Gasport and her daughter Crimson, who took home a maple sucker and maple coated almonds to go with a half-gallon of syrup. The Allis’ home has its fair share of maple trees, but its easy and more fun to eat than make.
“I’d rather (come out here) than have to boil down 40 gallons of sap to get a gallon of syrup,” Jennifer said.
While their evaporator wasn’t running a fresh batch of sap into syrup, Jason Wolf could show off a new piece of equipment that makes the process a lot easier.
The Wolfs have a new evaporator that brings in sap with about 2 percent sugar content and filters out water to raise that number to about 10 percent. From there the liquid has to reach 67 percent sugar for syrup, but hours have been taken off the process.
“I want to process it as soon as possible,” said Jason, whose syrup-making process happens in about a third of as much time now. That’s key in a short season that often has sap rushing for only brief periods.
The Wolfs expect to make as much as 200 gallons this season. The production depends on the weather. The producers like weather like what’s expected this week.
“As long as it freezes and thaws we’ll keep making more,” Heidi said.
“We’re halfway through the season, I hope to do more,” Terry Laubisch said, noting the blast of summer-like weather that prematurely curtailed the 2012 maple season a year ago. “We were all done last year, traditionally we can go into April.”