One of nature’s first gifts of spring, a sweet delight, maple syrup. I have thought of collecting sap and making maple syrup as a quaint little country hobby. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Producing maple syrup is big business and hard work. Eighty percent of the maple syrup used today is produced in Quebec, Canada. The Federation of Quebec Maple Sugar Producers has complete control over its production. Producing maple syrup without their oversight is illegal. In the United States maple syrup production is regulated differently.
Vermont is known for its maple syrup producing 5.5% of the syrup used globally. New York, Wisconsin, Ohio, New Hampshire, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Connecticut produce maple syrup on a smaller scale. I enjoy watching several stands of maple trees, where sap is collected, within a mile or two of my home.
Early pioneers learned to make maple syrup from the Eastern Woodland Native Americans. How the Native Americans learned this process is the subject of many stories. One tells of a Native American chief throwing a tomahawk at a maple tree releasing the sap. His wife collected this sap and boiled venison in it. Another speaks of observing deer licking sap as it oozed from a tree. It is said that in 1791 Thomas Jefferson began a maple plantation at Monticello. In the 1860s during the Civil War making maple sugar became big business as the sugar had a long shelf life and could be easily carried. With the invention of tin cans, metal spouts, and evaporating pans the job was a bit easier. Most of the syrup was made by dairy farmers to earn extra money during a slow time of year. The Quakers and abolitionists preferred the maple sugar to the cane sugar produced by slaves. Today maple syrup is still produced with great vigor.
All plants are producers meaning they make the food they need to grow and survive. This is done though a process called photosynthesis, photo meaning light and synthesis meaning to combine. Leaf cells contain chloroplasts. The chloroplasts contain chlorophyll which gives the leaf its green color. The chlorophyll collects and changes the sun’s energy into a form that can be mixed with water and nutrients from the tree’s roots and air, carbon dioxide to be specific, resulting in glucose (sugar) and oxygen. This is nature’s genius creating a balance that is the basis of all life on Earth.
In the fall trees prepare for their dormant period by storing glucose in their root system. The end of the dormant period is signaled by below freezing nights and 40-45 degree days. The tree begins drawing water and nutrients from the soil. This draw causes pressure sending the stored glucose up the trunk to the buds. This process occurs over twelve to twenty days and is the time we collect the glucose or sap. Once the buds begin to show their small greenish leaves sap collection stops.
Collecting and making maple syrup is referred to as sugaring. The process has not changed over the years, however the tools for collection and production have changed a great deal in efforts to make this procedure more economical and less labor intensive.
There are hundreds of species and subspecies of maple trees worldwide. Thirteen of these trees are native to the United States. Of those trees three are preferred for sugaring due to their high sugar content. Commercial sap is made from the Sugar Maples, Red Maples and Black Maples. The area supporting a group of maple trees is referred to as a sugar bush. To be tapped a tree must have an eight inch diameter. For this tree there will only be one tap. With the addition of every 20 centimeters in diameter another tap may be added. A maximum of three taps may be used without harming the tree’s growth.
In the beginning a hole was made in the tree and a container placed on the ground to collect the sap along with anything else nature wished to add. Later a spile (tap) with a hook for a bucket, first wood then metal, was used. The buckets were also covered. A horse drawn wagon would head to the sugar bush every one or two days to collect the sap and take it to the sugar house. The sap was then placed in a holding tank. Once there was enough sap it was placed in a copper boiler heated by a wood burning fire and boiled evaporating the water (sap is 98% water) and leaving syrup or sugar behind. It takes forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
Sugaring is still done with pails in addition to blue or silver plastic bags. Technology, however, has brought about many changes. Much of the equipment to collect the sap is now made of plastic. The trees are still tapped. Attached to the taps are miles of blue tubing leading to a storage tank. A vacuum pump helps pull the sap of many trees into the tank. The storage tanks are in the sugar bush or sugar house. The sap is then put into a reverse osmosis machine to withdraw some of the water. Its next stop is an evaporator where it is boiled. When the sap reaches 219 degree it is done. Once it is filtered, its density adjusted and graded for color and flavor it is ready to be bottled and sold.
It is easy to see why pure maple syrup is so expensive costing as much as $60 a gallon. As we purchase maple syrup it is important to read the label. Many of the leading pancake syrup makers in the United States use a high fructose corn syrup as the major sweetener. If it is pure maple syrup you are after you must dig deep into your pockets. In my opinion it is well worth it.
ARE YOU CHECKING YOUR SYRUP? ONE READER FOUND HERS TO BE MADE OF TURBANADO SUGAR WHICH IS ANOTHER NAME FOR RAW CANE SUGAR.