Judy and Tom Radzwich had no intention of entering the syrup business. Radzwich still maintains his full-time job with Pennsylvania's auditor general's office, but he and Judy make syrup at least three days a week. Now he admits that the sugaring business may help him take early retirement.
A shagbark hickory tree.
Photos courtesy of Tom and Judy Radzwich.
However, their syrup - Razz's Shagbark Hickory Syrup, a Luzerne County, Pa., product - is a bit different. The main ingredient is tree bark, not sap.
Unlike maple's limited window of opportunity, the shags fall off shagbark hickory trees year-round, so they can be collected and boiled into a nutty, smoky-flavored syrup year-round. For them, sugaring doesn't have to be a seasonal business.
Razz's Shagbark Hickory Syrup has a light, natural smokiness, but everyone has a different take on it. Some say its flavor reminds them of camping. It's less sweet than maple. One customer described it by saying, "I can only tell people it tastes like pancake syrup from inside of a smoldering tree."
From a historical perspective, the Radzwiches make their shagbark hickory syrup like the American Indians once did, making endless use of others' shagbark hickory tree lots. When a tree's shaggy bark peels off, the bark is gathered and the shags (the long strips of bark) are washed. The trees naturally shed old bark for new bark, like a snake shedding its skin.
The couple began without a solid recipe after switching from Radzwich's previous side job of selling sheds, gazebos and outdoor furniture, a 20-year endeavor that a nephew now runs. "I told Judy, 'Don't let me do anything for a year,'" he says.
When the year expired, that spring, Radzwich tapped sugar maple trees at home, sugaring the way it was done 100 years ago on an open fire, or even just using taps made from elderberry branches like the American Indians used. "What we got out of it, we got out of it," he says.
The following year, Radzwich was still looking for something to do outside his day job. Then, Judy's father died suddenly. While she tried to deal with his passing, she also lost her job. "I struggled with what I could do for her," Radzwich says.
One Sunday, he read about one of the few shagbark hickory syrup producers in the country, located in Indiana. "It hit me like a ton of bricks," he recalls. "It's what I could do to help Judy, and if there's a challenge you put in front of her, stand back."
When he told her what he had in mind, he recalls her saying, "Go ahead, knock yourself out."
A close-up look at a shagbark hickory tree.
Radzwich says, "When we started, we didn't even know what a shagbark hickory tree was, but we learned. We tell people that once you see one, you can never, ever miss another one."
Supply and demand
The Radzwiches don't live far from the Pocono Mountains and Hickory Run State Park, so they went there and hiked for miles, but couldn't find a single shagbark hickory tree. On the way back they stopped at the park ranger's office. The back of the park's brochure addressed a misnomer: Roughly translated, it said, "While you might think there would be a hickory tree in Hickory Run State Park, there aren't any."
Fortunately, friends about 20 miles away had some shagbarks. The couple collected the first bag of bark in October 2009, and then started experimenting. The first batch went to a neighbor for taste testing. "It took about a month before we had the right recipe; then we started going to craft shows, selling syrup in canning jars, offering samples and telling our story," Radzwich says. "People told us they really liked it, but we had to crawl before we walked and walk before we ran."
The couple will travel wherever they have to - and they've developed quite an extensive source list by now - to collect bags of discarded bark to make syrup.
The couple started their venture in Judy's mother's kitchen. State agriculture officials would have objected to production in their own pet-friendly house, and the couple is registered with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
It was a blessing in a way. Bernice, Judy's mother, joked that she never spent as much time in the kitchen when her husband, Jim Correale, was alive. The activity also made her house come alive again.
Last summer, Bernice moved in with them, and after converting the garage last February into the "hickory hut," or "shagbark shack," a 14-by-36-foot space, they transformed the operation from regular pots on a kitchen stove to an investment in commercial production. "As we've grown, we've needed to produce larger quantities," Radzwich says.
They've grown sensibly, expanding last year from 500 to 750 gallons. Each week nets about 20 gallons of syrup. "We spend a lot of time in the hickory hut, but it's quality time," he says. "Our hands touch every bottle."
Bark largely comes from customers, contacts established at shows (the Bloomsburg Fair, the Eastern Sports & Outdoor Show and others), hunters who scout for them and keepers of family farms. A typical conversation evolves after someone speaks of a tree on their property that they always have to clean up after. To owners it's bark litter, but the Radzwiches quickly intercede and say, "Don't burn it. Let us do that."
When the Radzwiches first started, they put their syrup in canning jars; now they use more traditional syrup bottles.
They log a lot of travel time, typically traveling within a one-hour radius, but they're not against a good road trip, even going 2.5 hours for one good tree in the woods. There's never a large concentration, at least not close enough to home. Wherever they go, Radzwich brings a ladder, and they collect bark in plastic storage bins.
"The best part is the people we've met," he says. "It makes you feel good. You hear others say how cutthroat [the industry] is, but it really isn't. We have as much fun making it as telling people about it."
They do worry about meeting the demand with supply, even in finding trees, but Radzwich has an extensive list of contacts and locations. They practice the barter system, if they can, and promise that those who share bark never have to buy syrup again. One client traded back two dozen eggs from the chickens she raises.
How it's made
The eight to 10-hour process starts with gathering the fallen bark, or shags. The shagbark hickory only begins to shed its bark at about eight years old and continues to shed for the rest of its life. The shags have a very distinct curl that peels away from the trunk and often falls off the tree as the tree ages or in severe weather. Over time, additional shags continue to peel away from the trunk, replaced by new bark.
Once gathered, the bark is broken up and cooked, creating an extract from the bark, almost like a tea. After extensive filtering, the Radzwiches are left with a liquid the color of the bark. There are no added colors or flavoring, but they do add some natural cane sugar as batches continue to boil down. If they start with a 4-gallon pot, in three or four hours it cooks down to about 2 gallons, comparable to the reduction in maple syrup production. "It may start off different, but it finishes with the same evaporation of water off the pots," Radzwich explains.
He often puts pots on the cold stove in the morning for Judy to get the batch going, and by 10 p.m. or midnight a batch is finishing and they're cleaning up.
They use a hydrometer to measure density so that each batch is consistent. They now use a regular bottle filler, which fills bottles with just the twist of a lever. It was an $800 investment. "We went back and forth for months over whether or not to do it," Radzwich says. "Then, when we did it, we said, 'Why didn't we do it sooner?'"
After extensive filtering, the Radzwiches are left with a liquid the color of the bark.
Razz's Hickory Syrup keeps forever. The Radzwiches suggest many uses: in tea, with ice cream, and as a marinade, sauce or glaze. They have created their own recipes, which are listed on their website (www.razzshickorysyrup.com). "My favorite used to be my wife's hickory apple cake, then she made lemon chicken, and I really liked that," Radzwich says. "I still really like it over my baked sweet potato french fries, but my all-time favorite is the hickory syrup marinade over ribs."
One more thing they do that others might not: They'll deliver, even driving it to your house. "For us, it's not about selling bottles of syrup and then never seeing you again," Radzwich says. "It's about good customer service."
When they first offered product to the local stores, UPC label setup was a $1,000 expense along with syrup testings, but they're now a player in Wegmans markets, five of them in Pennsylvania.
The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th-century America, agrarian culture, land use, and sports and recreation topics.