The 44th Annual Central New York Maple Festival was held on April 5-6 in Marathon, N.Y., kicking off with a pancake breakfast on Saturday morning and crowning the Maple Queen. But the true purpose of the festival is to highlight the vast amount of maple goods from producers across the state. However, the “polar vortex,” which plagued a huge portion of the country this winter, posed problems for companies who participated.
Maple season usually runs from late February into early April, when daily high temperatures are usually in the 40s or above, and nightly lows are still freezing. Under these conditions producers will have their goods processed just in time for the Marathon Maple Festival. When the trees are too cold to tap, the season runs shorter and the options for maple products are slim.
Maple syrup is categorized by grades. Grade A light amber is the sweetest because it has the highest sugar content. It is produced earliest in the season when the trees are first tapped. The syrup gradually becomes darker and the natural maple flavor intensifies as the sugar content decreases. What we usually find on our breakfast tables is medium amber-grade syrup, which is still sweet but has a more distinct maple flavor. Dark amber has the most intense maple flavor and is most popular among maple connoisseurs. It has been described as “an acquired taste.”
Why this season was problematic
Laurie and Lew Ward are the owners of Ward’s Maple Products located in Smithville Flats, about an hour east of Ithaca. Considering this years abnormally long and cold winter the Wards, among others, were unable to produce their light grade syrup and granulated maple sugar.
“This season has been a little more challenging for many maple producers in the northeast,” Laurie said, “it’s important to be able to have the freezing nights and we didn’t get enough of the warm weather to thaw out the trees.”
Syrup production has been down about a third, according to Garrett Gates, a Maple Fest Volunteer. Ward’s produces about one thousand gallons of syrup during a good year, but that number is significantly lower this year.
“There’s really no way you can change it,” says Gates, ” It’s just what Mother Nature does and how she acts.”
Darker syrup isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Gates says that grades of syrup are all of the same quality. The way you pick your syrup is based on personal preference.
“I like a darker syrup just for the better maple flavor,” says Gates, so this season has been good for him.
Regardless, this year’s festival still brought thousands of people from across the northeast to sell their products and taste some pure New York maple goods. While Gates handed out samples of syrup made on-site at the sugar shack, Laurie Ward sold maple sugar candy, maple fudge, maple cream, syrup and lollypops. Others sold maple pulled pork sandwiches, maple-covered fried dough, as well as maple water, tea and coffee.