Maple syrup is a sweetener made from the sap of maple trees. In Canada and the United States it is most often eaten with waffles and pancakes. It is sometimes used as an ingredient in baking, the making of candy, preparing desserts, or as a sugar source and flavoring agent in making beer. Sucrose is the most prevalent sugar in maple syrup.
According to Native American oral tradition, maple syrup and maple sugar was being made before recorded history. Native Americans in Eastern North America were the first to discover 'sinzibuckwud', the Algonquin word for maple syrup, meaning 'drawn from wood'.
The Algonquins were the first to recognize the sap as a source of energy and nutrition. They would use a tomahawk to make a V-shaped incision in the tree. Then, they would insert reeds or concave pieces of bark to run the sap into buckets made from birch bark. The sap was slightly concentrated, either by throwing hot stones in the bucket, or by leaving it overnight and disposing of layer of ice which had formed on top. It was drunk as a sweet drink or used in cooking. It is possible that maple-cured bacon began with this process.
To boil the water, they used a cauldron made of cooked earth, to boil maple sap over simple fires protected only by a roof of tree branches. This was the first version of the sugar shack. Over the years, this evolved to the point where the sugar shack is not only a place where maple syrup is produced, but also a gathering place where a traditional meal can be enjoyed.
Early Settlers in Quebec
In the 1700s, in Quebec, the white settlers and fur traders introduced wooden buckets, made by hollowing out a log. When the log was full, they poured the water into a cast-iron cauldron.
They boiled outside, in the woods. To protect themselves from wind and rain, they built a little camp. In the early days of colonization, it was the Natives who showed French settlers how to tap the trunk of a tree at the outset of spring, harvest the sap and boil it to evaporate some of the water. This custom quickly became an integral part of colony life and during the 17th and 18th centuries, syrup was a major source of high quality pure sugar. Later, however, they would learn to bore holes in the trees and hang their buckets on home-made spouts.
By the 1850s, the "sugar shack" (the outdoor shack used to boil down the sap) arrived as we know it today. The settlers had refined the methods for collecting the sap. The sap was transported using large barrel pulls by horses or cows and brought to the sugar shack for processing. At this time, the maple sugar was the only available sugar, and it was called “country sugar”. Maple Sugar production was especially important due to the fact that other types of sugar were hard to find and expensive. It was as common on the table as salt is today.
Even if production methods have been streamlined since colonial days, they remain basically the same. The sap must first be collected and distilled carefully so that you get the same totally natural, totally pure syrup without any chemical agents or preservatives.
Early maple syrup was made by boiling 40 gallons of sap over an open fire until you had one gallon of syrup. This was both time consuming and labor intensive, especially considering that the sap needed to be hauled to the fire in the first place.
The process underwent little change over the first two hundred years of recorded maple making. However, during the Civil War, the tin can was invented. The tin can was made of sheet metal. It didn’t take syrup makers long to realize that a large flat sheet metal pan was more efficient for boiling than a heavy rounded iron kettle which let much of the heat slide past.
Virtually all syrup makers in the past were self sufficient dairy farmers who made syrup and sugar during the off season of the farm for their own use and for extra income. The process continued to evolve as a result of the innovations these farmers developed in their work. In 1864, a Canadian borrowed some design ideas from sorghum evaporators and put a series of baffles in the flat pans to channel the boiling sap. In 1872 a Vermonter developed an evaporator with two pans and a metal arch or firebox which greatly decreased boiling time. Seventeen years later, in 1889, another Canadian bent the tin that formed the bottom of a pan into a series of flues which increased the heated surface area of the pan and again decreased boiling time.
For the most part technology stayed at this point for almost another century, until the 1960’s, when it was no longer a self sufficient enterprise with large families as farm hands. Because syrup making is so labor intensive a farmer could no longer afford to hire the large crew it would take to gather all the buckets and haul the sap to the evaporator house. During the energy crunch of the 1970’s, syrup makers responded with another surge of technological breakthroughs. Tubing systems, which had been experimented with since the early part of the century, were perfected and the sap came directly from the tree to the evaporator house. Vacuum pumps were added to the tubing systems. Pre-heaters were developed to "recycle" heat lost in the steam. Reverse-osmosis filters were developed to take a portion of water out of the sap before it was boiled. Several producers even obtained surplus desalinization machines from the U.S. Navy and used them to take a portion of water out of the sap prior to boiling. In fact, one is still in use by producer South-East of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The technological developments continue. Improvements continued in tubing. Similarly, new filtering techniques, "supercharged" preheaters, and better storage containers have been developed. Research continues on pest control and improved woodlot management.
Canada makes more than 80 percent of the world's maple syrup, producing about 7 million US gallons in 2005. The vast majority of this comes from Quebec: the province is by far the world's largest producer, with about 75 percent of the world production (6.515 million US gallons in 2005). The provinces of Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island produce smaller amounts.
Vermont is the biggest U.S. producer, with 450,000 US gallons in 2007, followed by Maine with 225,000 US gallons and New York with 224,000 US gallons. Wisconsin, Ohio, New Hampshire, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Connecticut all produced marketable quantities of maple syrup of less than 100,000 US gallons each in 2007.
Traditionally, maple syrup was harvested by tapping a maple tree through the bark and into the wood phloem, then letting the sap run into a bucket, which required daily collecting; less labour-intensive methods such as the use of continuous plastic pipelines have since superseded this, in all but cottage-scale production.
Production is concentrated in February, March, and April, depending on local weather conditions. Freezing nights and warm days are needed in order to induce sap flows. The change in temperature from above to below freezing causes water uptake from the soil, and temperatures above freezing cause a stem pressure to develop, which, along with gravity, causes sap to flow out of tapholes or other wounds in the stem or branches. To collect the sap, holes are bored into the maple trees and tubes (taps, spouts, spiles) are inserted. Sap flows through the spouts into buckets or into plastic tubing. Modern use of plastic tubing with a partial vacuum has enabled increased production. A hole must be drilled in a new location each year, as the old hole will produce sap for only one season due to the natural healing process of the tree, called walling-off. Maple sap is collected from the buckets and taken to the sugar house; if plastic tubing and pipelines are used, then the pipelines are arranged so that the sap will flow by gravity into the sugar house, or if that is not possible, into holding tanks from which the sap is pumped or transported by tanker truck to the sugar house.
It takes approximately 40 liters of sap to be boiled down to 1 liter of syrup. A mature sugar maple produces about 40 liters of sap during the 4-6 week sugaring season. Trees are not tapped until they have a diameter of 25 cm at chest-height and the tree is at least 40 years old. If the tree is more than 45 cm it can be tapped twice on opposite sides. It is recommended that the drilled tap hole have a width of 7.94 mm and a depth of 25 mm to 40 mm. During cooking, the sap is fed automatically by pipe from a storage tank to a long and narrow ridged pan called the evaporator. The evaporator is divided into two sections, the front pan and the back pan. As the sap boils, the water evaporates; it becomes denser and sweeter. As the density of the sap increases, it works its way from the rear evaporator to the front evaporator. Once there is enough syrup in the front pan, the cook shuts the valve connecting the two pans. This is a critical period in maple syrup production. Heat needs to be strictly regulated. The syrup is boiled until it reaches the correct density of maple syrup, 1333 kg/m3. The density is tested with a hydrometer. If the density is too low the syrup will not be sweet enough and if the density is too high the syrup will crystallize in bottles. When the syrup has reached a density of 1333 kg/m3, it can be drawn off into an approved container. At this point, fluid regulation becomes an art form. The cook has to control the flow of sap from the rear pan to the front pan. If the flow is too great it will dilute the maple syrup being drawn off. If the flow is too light the pans will be burned and future syrup will taste charred.
Starting in the 1970s, some maple syrup producers started using reverse osmosis to remove water from sap before being further boiled down to syrup. The use of reverse osmosis allows approximately 75 to 80% of the water to be removed from the sap prior to boiling, reducing energy consumption and exposure of the syrup to high temperatures. Microbial contamination and degradation of the membranes has to be monitored.
Maple syrup is sometimes boiled down further to make maple sugar, a hard candy usually sold in pressed blocks, and maple taffy. Intermediate levels of boiling can also be used to create various intermediate products, including maple cream (less hard and granular than maple sugar) and maple butter (creamy, with a consistency slightly less thick than peanut butter).
Starting in the mid 80's, northern communities in the province of Quebec began to open the "Cabane à Sucre" or Sugar Shacks to the public. These sugar shacks were generally located on large maple farms and often were built solely for tourist purposes. These sugar shacks serve maple syrup direct to the public and also are often restaurants serving maple syrup inspired meals and treats.
In Canada, there are three grades containing several color classes, ranging from Canada #1, including Extra Light (sometimes known as AA), Light (A), and Medium (B); through #2, Amber (C); and finally #3 Dark (D). A typical year's yield will include about 25-30% of each of the #1 colors, 10% Amber, and 2% Dark. Extra light syrups are recommended for making maple sugar candy, on pancakes and waffles; Light for French toast and cornbread, desserts and cereals; Medium for glazing, sweetening, or eating on its own. Number 2 grade syrups are intended for baking and flavouring. In addition, Canada #2 Amber may be labeled Ontario Amber for farm sales in that province only. Number 3 grade syrup is heavy, and restricted for use in commercial flavourings.
The United States uses somewhat different grading standards. Maple syrup is divided into two major grades, Grade A and Grade B. Grade A is further broken down into three subgrades: Grade A Light Amber (sometimes known as "Fancy"), Grade A Medium Amber, and Grade A Dark Amber. Grade B is darker than Grade A Dark Amber. The Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets uses a similar grading system of color and taste. The grade "Vermont Fancy" is similar in color and taste to U.S Grade A Light (Fancy). The Vermont grading system differs from the U.S. in maintaining a slightly higher standard of product density. Vermont maple is boiled just a bit longer for a slightly thicker product. The ratio of number of gallons of sap to gallon of finished syrup is higher in Vermont. Maple syrup is sold by liquid volume, not weight; however, a gallon of Vermont Grade A Medium Amber weighs slightly more than a gallon of U.S. Grade A Medium Amber. The Vermont graded product has one-half percent more solids and less water in its composition. A non-table grade of syrup called "commercial", or Grade C, is also produced. This is very dark, with a very strong flavor. Commercial maple syrup is generally used as a flavoring agent in other products.
The grades roughly correspond to what point in the season the syrup was made. Canada #1 Extra Light and U.S. Grade A Light Amber is early season syrup, while Canada #2 and #3/U.S. Grade B is late season syrup. Typically #1 Extra Light and Grade A (especially Grade A Light Amber) has a milder, more delicate flavor than #3 or Grade B, which is very dark with a robust flavor. The dark grades of syrup are primarily used for cooking and baking.
Maple syrup and its artificial imitations are the preferred toppings for pancakes, waffles, and French toast in North America. Maple syrup can also be used for a variety of uses, including: biscuits, fresh donuts, fried dough, fritters, ice cream, hot cereal, and fresh fruit (especially grapefruit). It is also used as sweetener for applesauce, baked beans, candied sweet potatoes, winter squash, cakes, pies, breads, fudge and other candy, milkshakes, tea, coffee, and hot toddies.
Maple syrup and maple sugar were used during the American Civil War and by abolitionists in the years prior to the war because most cane sugar and molasses was produced by Southern slaves. During food rationing in World War II, people in the northeastern United States were encouraged to stretch their sugar rations by sweetening foods with maple syrup and maple sugar, and recipe books were printed to help housewives employ this alternate source.
In Quebec, eastern Ontario, and New England the process has become part of the culture. One tradition is going to sugar houses (cabanes à sucre) in early spring for meals served with maple syrup-based products, especially the dish known variously as Tire sur la neige (in Quebec), maple taffee (in English Canada), and sugar on snow (in the United States). This is thickened hot syrup poured onto fresh snow and then eaten off sticks as it quickly cools. This thick maple syrup-based candy can be served in some cases served with yeast-risen doughnuts, sour dill pickles, and coffee.
Owing to the sugar maple tree's predominance in southeastern Canada (where European settlement of what would become Canada began), its leaf has come to symbolize the country, and is depicted on its flag. Several U.S. states, including New York and Vermont, have the sugar maple as their state tree. A scene of sap collection is depicted on the Vermont state quarter as well as the tins of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers' Association, a non-governmental agricultural organization that works to protect the integrity and purity of Vermont maple products, and to promote its historic signifigance to the culture of Vermont.
Québécois sometimes refer to imitation maple syrup as sirop de poteau ("pole syrup"), a joke referring to the syrup as having been made by tapping telephone poles.
In 1905, Crescent Foods Inc. created the popular imitation maple flavoring called Mapleine. Bought out by McCormick spices, it still distributes "Crescent Mapleine" in limited-production runs.
The location of the tap hole should be at a height that is convenient for easy collection, generally at a height of about 3 feet. If the tree has been tapped in previous seasons, do not tap within 6 inches of the former tap hole. If more than one tap is to be placed in the same tree (a tree 21-27 inches in diameter can support two taps and above 27 inches can support 3 taps), distribute the tap holes around the circumference of the tree. Be sure to avoid any damaged area of the tree.
To tap a maple tree, drill a hole 2 to 2 ½ inches deep at a slight upward angle to facilitate downward flow of sap from the hole. The shavings from the drilled tap hole should be light brown, indicating healthy sapwood. Insert the spile (tap) and gently tap the spile into the tree with a hammer (do not pound the spile into the tree, as this may cause the wood to split). If the sap is flowing, you should immediately see sap dripping from the spile. Attach a bucket to collect the sap and a lid to prevent rain, snow, and foreign material from entering the bucket.