HARRISBURG, Pa. — After Bernie Okuniewski cooks up a batch of syrup, the main ingredient that he pours into the bottle isn’t from the sap that flows inside a maple tree.
Instead, the ingredient that makes Okuniewski’s syrup unique is found on the outside of a tree.
Hickory bark, actually.
Four years ago, the resident of Larksville, Luzerne County, began making syrup using the extract brewed from the bark of hickory trees. He was introduced to the process by a friend and became hooked on the bark-based treat with a sweet and smoky flavor.
That’s what makes it different from syrup produced from maple sap.
“When you cook the bark in water, you’re basically making a tea, and that’s how you extract the flavor of the hickory tree,” Okuniewski said. “It’s a unique flavor, and I’m not knocking maple syrup. I like it and I make it, but this is completely different.”
While maple syrup utilizes the sucrose found within the sap, there are no sugars in hickory bark. Okuniewski adds organic cane sugar to sweeten the hickory extract as it’s cooked into syrup, and he said the sugar content is still less than the level found in maple syrup.
The collection process is another major difference between the two. There are no taps or hoses needed to collect the main ingredient for hickory syrup.
“With the help of my wife, Kim, and our kids, Lindsay and Drew, we’ll go into the woods and carefully peel the loose bark from shagbark hickory trees to a height of about 20 feet,” Okuniewski said. “It doesn’t hurt the tree, and in about two years you can’t even notice that bark was removed.”
Most of the collecting is done during the winter, he said, as there are no snakes, mosquitoes or poison ivy to contend with while in the woods. Okuniewski collects the bark from two varieties of hickory tree, shagbark and shellbark, both producing a similar taste.
The bark is washed in plastic drums to remove dirt and debris and then cooked with water in a stainless steel vat, which is the most crucial step of the syrup-making process. The water can’t boil, Okuniewski said, or else the syrup will be bitter. Instead, the bark is simmered and allowed to steep — like tea — for about a day.
Once the tea is amber colored, Okuniewski filters it several times to increase the clarity, and then he adds the organic cane sugar.
Finally, the sugar and tea mixture is simmered again to produce the syrup. A hydrometer is used to determine the proper density, and then it’s bottled at a temperature of 180 to 200 degrees.
One bin of bark yields about 5 gallons of syrup, and in addition to the sweet, smoky flavor of plain hickory syrup, Okuniewski produces flavors like bourbon barrel, sweet and spicy, cinnamon, sassafras, teaberry, hickory peach, and a variety infused with Madagascar vanilla bean.
Although hickory syrup is fine over pancakes at breakfast, Okuniewski said the uses aren’t limited to the morning meal. He likes to use the hickory syrup over chicken or ribs, and he said it’s great as a base for a wing sauce.
“It’s great for grilling, as a marinade, a sauce or over ice cream,” he said. “The applications for this are so diverse, it goes beyond breakfast.”
Okuniewski has expanded his syrup into a family business — Razz’s Hickory Syrup — and he sells bottles and jugs at various events throughout the year, including the Pennsylvania Farm Show.
At this year’s Farm Show, Okuniewski said, just about every flavor sold out. While he was busy handing out samples and selling bottles, Okuniewski also answered countless questions from curious customers.
Many people think the golden liquid inside the bottle is maple syrup or honey, he said, and it’s tough to believe it’s actually produced from hickory bark.
“They don’t associate hickory with syrup and that’s why it’s important to explain the process and give out samples,” Okuniewski said. “Education is a big part of this, and if you don’t talk to people at the shows, you’re not going to sell the syrup.”
In addition to the approximately 15 shows that he and his family attend each year, Okuniewski expanded the business and sells syrup in farm markets and retail outlets throughout the state.
While he still considers the business more of a hobby, as he and his wife work full-time jobs, he’d like to grow the wholesale and retail segments. Online sales are also a boost, especially with customers who previously bought syrup at a show, but shipping costs are a challenge.
Perhaps the biggest goal that Okuniewski has for the venture is to one day pass the business on to his kids.
“It’s a great thing for us to do as a family because the entire business is based on the outdoors. It all starts when we go into the woods to collect bark and the entire process is based on nature,” he said. “It would be a great thing for my kids to carry on and take it in their own direction.”