Almost Everything You Wanted to Know About Maple Syrup
Maple Syrup Production:
The sugar maple (acer saccharum) is unique to southeastern Canada and the northeastern part of United States. Syrup is made from the sap of the sugar and black maple trees; other maples' sap is not as sweet. (Sap is mostly water?about 97%; this is why it has to be collected in such vast quantities and boiled for so long to end up with such a small amount of syrup! The sugar in the sap was created last summer when the sunshine was converted into sugars by the process of photosynthesis. The sap begins to flow from the roots, where it has been stored, up the trunk of the tree when cool nights are followed by warm sunny days.
Origins of Maple Syrup Production:
Natives were the first to discover the fact that sap from maple trees could be processed into maple syrup. While there are no authenticated accounts of how this process was discovered there are several interesting legends. Undoubtedly these have been modified over time, but it is likely this discovery was accidental. One popular legend involves a Native chief who supposedly hurled his tomahawk at a tree. The tree happened to be a maple, and sap began to flow. The clear liquid that dropped from the wound was collected in a container that happened to be on the ground below. His wife, believing the liquid was water, used it to cook venison. Following cooking, both the meat and the sweet liquid that remained were found to be delicious. Retracing how this occurred revealed that sweet sap from the maple trees was the only difference. The process was repeated and the rest is now history.
Overview of Tapping, Collection and Evaporation Methods:
Although refinements have been made in the methods of sap collection and evaporation, the fundamentals of the processes involved have remained unchanged. Wounding the sapwood results in the flow of sap that can be collected and processed.
Natives tapped maple trees by cutting a gash in the trunk. Sap from the wound flowed through a twig or piece of bark into a birch bark or other wooden container placed on the ground. Sap from several such containers was collected and placed in a larger wooden vessel, often a hollowed out or "dugout" log. The sugar in the sap was concentrated by heating stones in a nearby fire and then placing the hot stones in the sap. The heat from the stones resulted in some evaporation and sugar concentration. Another method was to allow the sap to freeze first; the ice that formed was discarded, leaving behind a thick, sweet sugar solution.
Early settlers, both French and English, first followed the practice of gashing maples to release the sap. The sap then was collected in wooden troughs placed on the ground. An improvement involved the use of an auger to make a smaller wound or taphole, resulting in less damage to the tree. Primitive spouts, or SPILES, made by pushing the pith out of small stems of sumac or elder, directed the sap into the container below. Eventually, metal spouts replaced the wooden ones. The metal spout had the advantage of directing the sap into a container but it also suspended the container in a stable position, off the ground, by means of a built-in hook. The brace and bit (7/16" or 11mm) later replaced the auger as the tapping tool. For many years this technique continued as the preferred tapping method. Motor-powered drills are the rule today in larger operations, but smaller producers still use the brace and bit.
Collecting sap from maple trees has progressed from birch bark containers through wooden buckets and metal buckets (with covers) to the modern practice of using plastic tubing. Initially, sap was gathered and transported by hand to the boiling site. Equipment consisted of a pair of large wooden buckets suspended from a shoulder yoke. Later, gathering was done with oxen or horses pulling a sledge or sled on which a wooden tub was mounted.
Next came tractor-drawn vehicles with metal tubs or tanks. In the latter two cases, sap was carried in gathering pails from buckets at the tree and dumped into the tanks. In the 1950s, experiments began which lead to the development of pipelines and plastic tubing. By the mid-'60s these systems, transporting sap from tree to sugarhouse, were coming into general use, as was the use of vacuum pumps.
Once they had gathered the sap, the early settlers boiled it down in metal cauldrons or kettles. These vessels were suspended from a pole or tripod of poles over open fires. As concentration proceeded more sap was added and the boiling continued. The resulting syrup was both strong flavoured and dark. An innovation that led to improved quality was to ladle the liquid from one kettle to another as it progressively thickened.
Sometime in the mid-1800s the flat-bottomed pan for concentrating sap was introduced; a pan of this sort greatly increased the surface exposed to the flames below. By 1860 the evaporator had been invented. Evaporators with sectional dividers open at one end allowed the cold sap to be run in at one end of the evaporator and the finished syrup to be drawn off at the other end. This was a major improvement over the batch system used with kettles and flat pans, where boiling would take place for hours before removal of the finished syrup. The evaporator cut down the boiling time and produced a better quality product. One of the first evaporators to be patented and used in the maple industry was the Cooks Sugar Evaporator, patented June 22, 1858 in Ohio.
The next step, which further increased the area of the heating surface, was the invention of the flue pan. This pan, with the exception of the addition of a device called a preheater, has come down to the present with few modifications. From the flue pan, partially concentrated sap is directed into the flat finishing pan, provided with dividers to maintain sap circulation as it increases in density.
In the early days, kettles for boiling sap were suspended over fires built in the open. Soon it was recognized that there should be shelter for both the sugarmaker and the product that was being prepared. The first shelters were nothing more than crude shacks or lean-tos in the woods. Next, the settlers constructed cabin-like structures which, through the passing years, have evolved into present-day sugarhouses.
Did You Know?
- Canadian maple products have been renowned world wide for their quality and taste. Most Canadian maple syrup is graded and marketed as Canada no.1 (Extra Light, Light & Medium), 2 (Amber) or 3 (no colour requirement).
- Ontario has the 4th largest syrup production in the world, following Quebec, Vermont, and New York State
- Maple sap flows best on still, sunny days. Sap can flow at rates up to 150 drops per minute. Taking a small amount of sap does not damage the tree
- It requires an average of 40 litres of sap to make 1 litre of syrup
- The sap flows for a short period of time (perhaps 3 to 6 weeks if weather conditions are right)
- Pure maple syrup has no fat, and no proteins and is a good source of 3 essential elements--calcium, iron and thiamin. NOTHING is added. Pure maple syrup contains no other ingredients, no other sweeteners.
- The boiling point of syrup is 219 F. or 7 degrees above the boiling point of water
- To be sold legally, syrup must have 66% sugar content (referred to as 66 Brix)
- As soon as the buds on the trees begin to open, the sap is no longer suitable for making syrup; it takes on a bitter taste. According to folklore, when the frogs begin to sing, the syrup season is over!
- Canada accounts for 80% of the world production of maple syrup and the United States for the remaining. The main producing provinces are Quebec with 90% of the national production, Ontario 7%, New Brunswick 2% and Nova Scotia 1%
- About 80% of the Canadian production is sold in bulk, mainly from Quebec and New Brunswick; the remaining is sold at the farm level or directly to the retail market.
- About 12,000 producers commercially produce maple syrup in Canada with provincial producer associations in Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia. According to provincial figures in 1996, the number of taps was close to 27 million in the country with an average yield of syrup per tap of 2 lb (0.7 kg)
- Maple syrup is produced by concentrating maple sap through evaporation; some producers use 'reverse osmosis' in the process to increase effectiveness
- World maple production increased by almost 50% over the last ten years, mainly due to the increase in Canadian production.