When Caroline Foote from Maple Hill Farm offered to write an article for us about how maple syrup is made, we jumped at it. Having seen the whole thing first hand, we know it to be an fascinating, if labor intensive process. If you have always been curious about how 40 gallons of sap is extracted and boiled down to make a single gallon of pancake-worthy syrup, read on!
"Does maple syrup really come from maple trees?"
This is the number one question I get when I give tours during maple season at my farm, Maple Hill Farm, in upstate New York.
At times I visualize myself strangling people who ask that question (I am still baffled at how many people just don't know where their food comes from), but then I catch myself, smile and kindly explain that yes, maple syrup does in fact come from maple trees and here's how:
Maple trees are very unique, as the native peoples from this continent discovered. When the sap from the tree is boiled, it concentrates and goes from 2% sugar content to 66% sugar content in the finished product we call maple syrup. There are a few conditions that need to be met in order to collect the sap, though; we can't just cut the tree any time of year and boil it down. Usually, in the end of February, the days start to get longer and a little warmer. When the temperature rises into the 40's during the day and goes back into the 20's at night, that's when the sap runs. Meaning, the tree thinks it's spring during the day, sending sap to the branches in preparation for budding out the leaves. Then, the tree thinks its winter at night and sends the sap back down to the roots to hibernate until spring or in our case, the very next day. We have about a six-week window within which we can gather sap. After the trees bud the sap dries up and no longer runs.
How do we actually get the sap? Good question...The trees are 'tapped' to allow us to gather the sap. Time was, these taps were large metal sheets about 3"-4". Then, over a hundred years ago wooden 'taps' or spiles were whittled and used, ranging in size from 1 ½ inch diameter to ¾ inch. About fifty years ago the modern spile made out of metal was developed with a diameter of 7/16. A great improvement. However, as conscientious farmers, we wanted something even smaller, and thankfully Cornell University discovered we could tap with a much smaller device and get the same amount of sap. So, we started tapping our trees with micro spiles, at 11/64 inch diameter. They are the smallest tap in the maple industry today. The impact on the tree is minimal and the hole heals in weeks instead of months (the normal healing time for the larger taps).
We then collect the sap, a process which has thankfully evolved as well over the years. Instead of buckets, large producers like ourselves use tubing and a vacuum system that transports the sap to large tanks. We then transport the sap to our Sap House to begin the boiling process. We call what we boil the sap down in an evaporator because we do just that, evaporate the excess water out of the denser sugar molecules. After it boils for hours, and we determine it has become maple syrup by using a hydrometer and thermometer, we then filter the syrup and bottle it, ready to be used on your pancakes!
The best thing about maple syrup is that it's a natural sugar. There is nothing added to the sap to make syrup. We just boil off forty gallons of water to make the maple syrup. But, as a natural sugar, it wins out hands down for nutrition and health benefits. Maple syrup is metabolized more slowly by the body and doesn't spike insulin like refined sugars do. It also doesn't affect brain chemistry like chemical sugars do. It has vital trace minerals in it and good carbohydrates as well. It cooks the same way as refined white and brown sugar and can be substituted in all recipes. And, guess what, it tastes great too!
Like my customers that take a tour at our farm during maple season, you are now well equipped with the information you need to be able to definitely say to someone 'maple syrup really comes from a maple tree' (though out of context you may be looked at a bit oddly if you just blurt this information out). But unlike my customers, you can't smell and taste the harvest first hand, unless you live in the Northeast or upper Midwest of the U.S. and Canada. My suggestion to geographically challenged people without access to a maple production farm is this; do some digging on LocalHarvest and look for a family owned maple farm that has been around for a few generations. When you purchase maple syrup from your supermarket, or any large box store, you are generally getting maple syrup from Canada, not the U.S. And, some syrups aren't pure either; they've been cut with high fructose corn syrup. Find a producer in the U.S and make sure they carry either Pure Maple Syrup, Certified Naturally Grown Maple Syrup or USDA Organic Maple Syrup. Then, you are staying as local as possible and actually getting the product from the grower/producer.
And remember, maple syrup is not only the first harvest of the year, it's the sweetest!
Maple Hill Farm Enterprises, LLC
Back to the March 2009 Newsletter