Making Maple Syrup

Extracting sap from a tree and turning it into syrup may seem like a task fit for an alchemist, but with a little knowledge and some basic tools the syrup can easily be made. With a drill, a bucket, some shallow pans, a hot stove and a thermometer, sap can easily be extracted, processed and turned into maple syrup. Of course, one may want a little background information before getting started.

There are different grades of maple syrup in Canada and the United States. In Canada, the grades are divided into colour classes. Extra light, light, and medium, are recommended for table use, while amber and dark are best for cooking. American maple syrup is divided between Grade A and Grade B. Grade A has three sub categories, including light amber, medium amber, and dark amber, while Grade B has dark amber. No matter the grade, the syrup is delectably sweet and intoxicatingly delicious; its no wonder people have trudged through the remainder of a winters snow to tap trees, collect sap, and boil that sap down into sweet syrup for hundreds of years.

Native Americans first discovered maple sap three hundred some years ago. It is believed they taught their primitive ways to European settlers who modified their techniques combining modern utensils with the already established process of the Native Americans. The Europeans enhanced the process cooking down the rough sugar in cauldrons and it is thought that they created maple syrup. Canada produces the majority of the syrup produced in the world today and while modern advances in technology have turned the trade into big business, the syrup can still be made as it was for a few hundred years following a series of steps that don’t necessarily require the technology.

In order to make maple syrup, you must first be sure the trees you are about to tap are the correct species. Sugar maple and black maple are considered superior due to their high concentration of sugar. They grow in a relatively small area in North America, which means that it is a good idea to verify what type of maple they are to ensure quality syrup. Other types of maple have been used for maple syrup, but the quality is considered to be less. Maple trees can live up to two hundred years old and can produce sap for many generations if treated properly.

There is a small window each year for collecting the sap. This window is usually only four to six weeks long. The time of year is from the end of winter to the beginning of spring. When it gets too late in the year, the sap collected will appear tinged with a yellow hue indicating the end of the season. The weather conditions that initiate the sap dripping start with warm sunny spring like days followed by chilly wintry nights.

Once you have determined the species of the trees, there are only a few steps that need be followed to make maple syrup. They are time consuming steps but they are not complicated. The process begins with tapping and ends with evaporation.

Tapping involves drilling a hole into the tree. Most commonly, the bit used is typically around a ½ inch wide. Trees that measure at least ten to twelve inches in diameter, and are a meter or more tall, are safe to begin tapping for sap. As the tree matures and gets bigger, it is common practice for one tree to contain as many as four taps. The hole is drilled approximately two inches into the tree. Next, a tap is inserted into the drilled hole. After the tap is inserted, it is then hammered the rest of the way into the tree. If the tree has been tapped before it is best to place the new tap several inches from the old hole.

Collection is a slow and steady process and can take up to a full day to retrieve one bucket of sap, but it is well worth the wait. Once the tap is in place, a bucket is hung from the tap to collect the drippings. Most buckets have a lid that works double duty as it lets the sap drip continuously and it keeps other debris, like branches and bark, from spilling into the sap. At the end of the day the sap is collected from each tap on each tree and combined together where it is then taken for processing to what is traditionally called a sugar shack. Motorized vehicles, like tractors, make it much faster and easier to do as travelling from tree to tree collecting each bucket of sap was very slow and laborious when using animals to cart it back to the sugar shack. The bucket is then replaced on the tap to continue collecting the sap.

The sap itself will appear thin and clear and have a sweet watery taste before it is processed. It may contain debris or sediment and must be filtered before processing and again after processing to produce the pure appearance of a true maple syrup.

The evaporation process takes time and a considerable amount of sap. The sap to syrup ratio is 40:1which means it takes approximately 40 litres of unprocessed sap to produce one litre of maple syrup. This is the major contributing factor for how expensive maple syrup is. The sap must be processed immediately in order to produce the highest quality syrup possible and to prevent bacteria and other contaminants from invading it.

Filtered sap is then poured into shallow pans and heated to a temperature a few degrees above boiling point. The exact temperature must be determined with the altitude in mind but it is somewhere in the range of two to four degrees Celsius above boiling point. The water evaporates in plumes and clouds of steam throughout the process and the sap slowly thickens into syrup. Traditionally it is cooked over wood stoves, the fires of which are continually maintained to ensure constant and steady heat. Foam and any other unwanted debris that floats to the top are skimmed off as the sap continues to reduce.

The process can take many hours. There isn’t an exact time to process the sap, as there are many determining factors. The time would depend on the quantity of sap being reduced, the vessel it is cooked within, the source of heat, and the rate of evaporation. Once it has thickened and attained its golden, tawny, amber hue, the syrup is again filtered to remove any unwanted sediment and funnelled into sterilized glass jars. At this point it is finally ready to be enjoyed.

If the sap is boiled longer and to a higher temperature a variety of maple candies can be made. There is soft and hard maple sugar as well as maple butter which can all be made very easily using a candy thermometer. Another tasty treat is maple taffy. Maple taffy is made by pouring hot syrup over tightly packed snow.

The best way to store maple syrup is in the freezer. It will not freeze completely, it may thicken but if it is removed and thawed for a few minutes it will regain its viscosity and will pour easily. The freezing process allows the syrup to stay fresh longer than if it were merely kept in the refrigerator.

Anyone who has tasted maple syrup can understand why for centuries people have gone through this labourious process. Maple syrup is a sweet delicacy, which can be enjoyed in many ways. Most commonly the syrup is poured over stacks of pancakes or waffles but it can also be enjoyed as a candy, a sweetener, over ice cream, used as a glaze for salmon, or it can even be a wonderful addition to vinaigrette. Whichever way it is used maple syrup is a nectar well worth its yearly process.

Modern advances in technology and new ways of thinking have enhanced this process utilizing tubing instead of the old-fashioned method of collection using buckets and taps. The plastic tubing is connected from tree to tree and can either be set up to flow down hill towards a sugar shack or used in conjunction with a vacuum pump to direct the flow. This new process eliminates a portion of the labour allowing producers to produce more syrup. In the end it matters not how it was produced when you get a taste of the sweet intoxicating flavour of pure maple syrup on your tongue. While it is truly wonderful, and we can see here exactly how the magic happens, extracting the sap of the maple tree and rendering it to thick sweet syrup will always remain one of those wondrously mysterious processes nature provides.