In the Main Hall of the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex, you’ll find lots and lots of maple syrup, where the Pennsylvania Maple Syrup Producers Council is holding court. But if you venture west into the Trading Post section, among the sundry food vendors hawking pretzels, nuts, potato chips and bologna, you’ll find a syrup of a very un-maple-y kind, made from hickory bark.
If you’ve never heard of shagbark hickory syrup, join the club; it’s a little-known product made by a small yet unknown number of artisans east of the Mississippi. Unlike maple syrup, there is no established hickory syrup producers association, at least not yet.
A quick Internet search reveals a producer or two in Indiana and another in Virginia, Wisconsin and Connecticut. It’s mentioned in Victuals, the award-winning 2016 cookbook about Appalachia, written by Ronni Lundy. And here at the Farm Show, there isn’t just one – but two – shagbark hickory producers from Pennsylvania.
For oxen farmer Doug Drewes, who grew up in Manheim, it was love at first spoonful. “I had my first taste of hickory syrup seven years ago (from Razz’s Hickory Syrup in Luzerne County), and I was immediately fascinated,” said Drewes. To make the syrup, owner Tom "Razz" Radzwich collected bark from farms and while out hiking, and here was Drewes, with 250 shagbark hickory trees on his property in Mifflintown, Juniata County.
A bark-for-syrup trade ensued, and the two became fast friends. Inspired by Razz’s endeavors and with the help of YouTube how-to videos, Drewes embarked on his first batch of syrup two years ago.
The shaggy bark easily peels off the tree, said Drewes, then it’s cleaned and roasted for a few hours in a 250 F oven. The bark then steeps and simmers in about 13 gallons of water until dramatically reduced, to one gallon, which takes between eight and 12 hours. The mixture is filtered, then Drewes adds organic cane sugar and vanilla extract before bottling at 240 F.
The syrup has a unique flavor profile, slightly smoky and delicately sweet, with a less viscous texture than maple syrup. In a word, sublime.
Radzwich has gotten out of the hickory syrup game, but his business lives on with new owners, also out of Luzerne County.
As for Drewes, who had a flooring business for 39 years, he’s got high hopes for his next hickory-infused chapter. “Everybody and their brother makes maple syrup,” he said. “Not everybody makes hickory syrup.”