Maple Syrup History
The history of gathering and making maple syrup hasn't changed much since it was first discovered. In fact, many old timers still tap their own trees and use a traditional woodburning stove to produce homemade syrup.
It was the Indians of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River regions that first discovered the process of collecting sweet-water sap from maple trees and turning it into a sweet delicacy. With the arrival of European settlers, the maple syrup industry took off. For nearly 300 years, sap had been gathered using the same methods. By the late 1940's, modernization took hold, introducing taphole drilling equipment, sanitation methods and new, larger storage tanks.
LOTS OF SAP, LITTLE SYRUP
It takes approximately 40-gallons of maple sap to produce just one gallon of maple syrup. The process of boiling down sap requires so much heat, that it takes a piece of wood as big as one man to produce just that one gallon of syrup.
WATCHING FOR THE RIGHT TIME
Beginning in late February and running through early April, diehard maple farmers in the United States and Canada take to the woods with buckets, tubing, spigots and drills. Some commercial producers use a piping system to gather maple sap, but much of the country still performs this task the old fashioned way.
The process of collecting sap is a touchy one, requiring optimal conditions. Temperatures must be perfect to collect the sap from a Maple tree. Optimal conditions are met when the daytime temperatures reach into the 40's, and the nighttime temperatures are below freezing. Any variation in temperature will affect how the sap runs out of the tree or if it will run out at all. The time period for collecting sap is relatively short. Depending on which region of North America the sap is being harvested from, the maple syrup season can last anywhere from 2-7 weeks.
By drilling a 7/16 inch hole, 3 inches deep into a Maple tree and inserting a tap or spigot, the maple syrup collectors then attach collection bags to the tree. The ideal spot to tap a tree is approximately 2-4 feet above the ground on an area of sound wood. Traditionally, harvesters have used plastic milk containers and tin buckets to store dripping sap. Today, plastic, clearly marked collection bags are used most often. Bags or pails are fastened to the tree and left behind.
On hillside areas or on large, commercially owned maple tree farms, plastic tubing is attached to the tree, in place of a bucket or bag. The sap is then removed directly from each tree and into a shared holding tank. Some tubing lines stretch more than a mile long, and may connect as many as 500 different trees.
FIRST IS BEST
As a rule, the "first run" or first amount of sap collected from each tree, is usually the finest quality sap. The higher the quality of sap, the higher the sugar content. Sap degrades as the season progresses. Commercial gatherers today can tap a tree and using electronic equipment, determine the sugar sap content of each tree and know beforehand just how much sap each tree will yield.
Once a day, sap levels are checked and gathered from the buckets or bags. Sap flow in maples does not occur every day, but must be continuously checked as sap is delicate, and will sour in much the same way as milk. The clear liquid that's collected is placed in buckets and drums for processing, and moved to a "sugar shack." A sugar shack is the building in which sap will be heated and boiled down.
A heat source, often a large drum styled wood burning stove, is then started and kept at a constant temperature. The Maple sap is then processed by feeding it slowly into the sap evaporator and boiling it down. Forty gallons of raw sap, boiled down using traditional methods, will take approximately 10 hours of heat.
During the heating process, the sap is boiled down, evaporating as much moisture as possible. As the sap loses moisture, the color changes from clear to amber. After reaching an optimal temperature of 219 degrees, the sap reaches optimal consistency and is then removed from the heat source.
The final heating process requires moving the sap to another heating unit and reboiling. It is during the second heating that the sap turns to syrup consistency and color. The boiling mixture is sent through a filtering process which clarifies the syrup, removing "sugar sand" and other debris. Cloth and paper filters are most widely used today. Once the syrup has been cleaned, it is stored in canning jars, glass jars or metal containers and sealed.
Once the sap has turned to syrup, it is then graded by government standards and sold. USDA Grade A is considered table grade syrup and is most often amber in color. USDA Grade B is dark, strong flavored syrup, most often used in cooking.
Sap removed from Maples does not harm the tree. At the end of each season, taps are removed, and the tree heals itself by filling in the holes.
Properly cared for Sugar Maple trees can be tapped at 40 years of age, and will yield sap for 100 years or more.
Lighter colored maple syrup has a more delicate flavor than the darker, more "mapley" variety.
Boiling down maple syrup and pouring it into molds for hardening produces pure maple candy, which can easily be made in any home kitchen.
Once nighttime temperatures remain above freezing, maple trees begin to bud, and the syrup season is over.
Indians and early settlers first made maple syrup by collecting sap in hollowed-out logs and then steaming away the water by dropping in hot stones.
A single tap hole can produce from a quart to a gallon of sap per flow period (from a day to several days).
Each maple tree tapped produces approximately 10-12 gallons of sap yearly.
Maple syrup can easily be made at home. Almost 1/3 of maple syrup makers use homemade heaters and wood burning stoves to boil and process syrup.
Commercial quantities of maple syrup are produced today in Quebec, Vermont, New York, Ontario, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Maine. Today's most popular products include pure and blended brown table syrups, confections, toppings for desserts, flavorings and tobacco casing.