Growing up in Connecticut my Uncle Gary would start tapping trees in the spring and then later precious jars of syrup would be passed out to the family. This syrup would be used sparingly on special occasions and rationed for the rest of the year. The homemade syrup always tasted better than the bottle that came off the shelf at the supermarket. This is the first spring that I’ve tapped trees and personally carried the sap back from the trees.
At the Highland Center we have a small stand of maple trees, with about twenty maples taped. From these we are harvesting the sap and boiling it down in the kitchen. We offer a daily maple sugaring program where we talk about the process of making maple syrup and collect it. It’s given me a new appreciation of what it takes to produce maple syrup.
The Native Americans were the first to discover maple syrup and it was a popular trading item. The discovery was most likely accidental. One popular myth is that a chief discovered the sweet sap dripping out of a tree that he stuck his tomahawk into. As the day got warmer the sap dripped into a cooking pot. The chief’s wife discovered that sweet water in the pot tasted quite good decided to cook his meat in it. The chief was so impressed with the sweet taste of the maple meat he named it Sinzibudkwud which means “drawn from trees”.
But why do maples produce such sweet sap? Sugar is produced in the leaves during photosynthesis. In the later summer and fall maple trees virtually stop growing and begin storing excesses of these sugars throughout the sapwood during the winter in the form of carbohydrates. The excess starch remains in storage as long as the wood remains colder than about 40ºF. Whenever wood temperatures reach 40ºF the cells change the starches to sugars. The sugar then passes into the tree sap. As the temperature increases to about 45ºF, the cells stop converting the carbohydrates and sugar is no longer produced. Rising temperature creates pressure inside the trees, causing sap to flow. When a hole is bored into the tree, wood fibers that are water/sap carrying vessels are severed, so sap drips out of the trees.
In the North Country it still looks like winter but with warmer temperatures becoming more common spring is on its way. Maple sugaring, or the collection of the sap from maple trees, usually starts in early March and continues into mid April. The maple trees have started to run but haven’t reached peak production yet.
Maple Trees are used for the higher sugar content of the sap. Sugar Maples are preferred because they have higher sugar content to their sap than the Red Maple. When the leaves are out its easy to distinguish between the Sugar Maple, and the Red Maple leaves because of their different leaf structure. The Sugar Maple has U shaped curves between the five lobes. The Red Maple has V shaped points between the five lobes and jagged edges along the edges of the lobes.
Unfortunately if you haven’t marked the trees before the leaves fell off in the fall it’s a bit harder to distinguish between the two types and takes a bit more detective work. To identify a maple during the winter you must first look at the bark. On a young tree its dark grey in color, smooth and firm. As the tree matures it becomes more furrowed and irregular. It often lifts up to one side. As the Red Maples get older their bark can also take on a flakey quality to it. You can often find more moss and lichen growing on these trees than other species. The smaller branches on these trees have opposite branching meaning that their smaller twigs grow opposite each other on the branch. The bud shape, pattern and color are used to distinguish the two species. The buds on Sugar and Red Maples appear in clusters of threes on the tip, or terminal end, of a branch and are in opposite pairs. The buds on a Sugar Maple are about a quarter inch long and sharply pointed and brown to grayish brown. Red Maples have shorter, blunter buds which are an eighth of an inch or less. The buds and twigs of Red Maples also take on a reddish hue as spring approaches.
Photo credit: Sara DeLucia
Once the trees are identified it’s possible to tap the trees. How many taps go into a tree depends on the age and size of the tree. The average yield from a tap is between ten and twenty gallons of sap although under favorable conditions it’s possible for a tap to yield as much as forty to eighty gallons. Ten gallons of sap is required to produce one quart of syrup. Sugar Maples produce sweeter sap but Red Maples can also be used to produce syrup.
Once the sap is collected it is boiled down evaporating the majority of the water. This step should not be done inside without a stove vent fan or dehumidifier because of the large amounts of steam produced. Sap becomes finished maple sugar when it reaches 66-67% sugar content at 7.1ºF above the temperature of boiling water. A syrup hydrometer is used to determine the correct density. If the syrup has sugar concentrations below 66% the syrup can sour over time. If the sugar content is over 67% it will start to produce sugar crystals in the syrup.
After the syrup has reached the correct density and temperature it is filtered, poured into containers, and sealed for storage. The syrup production hasn’t reached this point yet at the Highland Center but I’m looking forward to putting homemade maple syrup on my French toast at breakfast.