Maple syrup has always been a staple in our house. It was brought out on Sundays when Mom made pancakes or waffles. Every once in a while we would buy a small container of real maple syrup while on vacation. My brother would then slowly ration the precious liquid and could make a seemingly small amount last for months. It wasn’t until I came up to the White Mountains and started working for the AMC that I fully understood the process and all of the work that goes into making this tasty treat.
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 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. Rising temperatures stimulates water uptake from the soil and creates pressure inside the trees, causing sap to flow. When a hole is bored into the tree, woof fibers that are water/sap carrying vessels are severed, so sap drips out of the trees. Warm days and cool nights are required to keep the sap flowing. As the temperature increases to about 45ºF, the cells stop converting the carbohydrates and sugar is no longer produced. This rise in temperature stimulates the swelling of the maple buds. The sap will get an unpleasant odor due to physiological changes in the tree as it begins to grow. This signals the end of sap collection for the year.
In the North Country it starting to look a bit like spring but there is still plenty of snow on the trails. Maple sugaring, or the collection of the sap from maple trees, usually starts in early March and continues into mid April. The maple trees are in peak production now.
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 although Red Maples can still be used. 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.
At the Highland Center the guides go out daily to collect sap. We offer a maple sugaring program where we go out along the Stewardship Trail and collect the sap from the tapped trees. This is stored in blue five gallon jugs in the walk in refrigerator downstairs until one of our chefs starts boiling it down.
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. Chef has started boiling some of the sap down so that we have more containers to store sap in. With any luck we will have homemade maple syrup for our Easter Brunch. If you are in the Crawford Notch area stop by and check out our maple syrup operation. If they are boiling the sap down you might be able to have a taste.