By Joy Neighbors
It’s the time of year when folks used to head to the woods in droves looking for the perfect maple trees to drill and tap for that exquisite liquid soon to be converted into delicious maple syrup.
Native Americans were the first to discover and collect this sweet, clear liquid. Made from the sap of sugar maple, black maple, or red maple trees, the trunks were “tapped” by boring holes in them in the late winter and early spring. The sap was collected, then heated over a blazing fire to boil off the excess water, leaving behind that rich sweet syrup. During the 1800s and early 1900s, maple sugaring camps were set up and men would tap and gather as much syrup as possible during the four to eight weeks that the sap ran.
Maple syrup became known as “country sugar” and families around the northern and eastern parts of the country looked forward to the close of winter and “maple sugarin’ time.” All a family needed was a good “sugar bush,” which was a stand of maple trees about 30 to 40 years old. Using a brace and bit, holes were drilled into the tree trunks and wooden taps were inserted. A bucket with a covering was hung from the tap to collect the sap as it slowly dripped from the tree. The buckets were emptied into barrels every few days and rehung until the sap lost its sweetness. Sunny days with temperatures around 40 degrees, followed by freezing nights in the 20s, made the sap run the strongest.
Sap was poured into iron kettles and hung over a fire built outside, or inside a structure known as a sugar shack with a vented roof to allow the steam to escape. Boiling the sap reduced the water content and concentrated the sugars. But the boiling process was time-consuming. The sap had to be watched to ensure that it boiled at a consistent speed. If it boiled too fast, it could crystallize; too slow, and the syrup would be runny and quick to spoil. Once the boiling was completed, the syrup was filtered to remove the “sugar sand,” those particles that made the syrup too gritty. Then the syrup was cooked and could be made into sugar, maple butter, maple cream or maple candies, including taffy. One maple tree could produce about 10 gallons of sap, the equivalent of a quart of maple syrup.
But by the mid-1940s, interest in gathering sap and making maple sugar diminished drastically. Maple lumber was then in demand for building furniture, so prices for the wood skyrocketed. The end of the war also had an effect since families could now afford real white sugar instead of having to make due with country sugar.
Today, maple syrup is mainly produced by large companies in Vermont, the eastern U.S. and Canada, and the process has been streamlined. Instead of buckets, plastic tubing is tapped into trunk holes and vacuum pumps push the sap out. Special heaters simplify the heating and boiling process. Now when the syrup is filtered, it’s also graded and then hot-packed for resale.
The International Maple Syrup Institute updated the grading scale for maple syrup in 2014. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the United States Department of Agriculture adopted the industry-wide scale in 2016. Maple syrup is now classified as Grade A, processing grade and substandard.
Grade A includes Golden Color and Delicate Taste; Amber Color and Rich Taste; Dark Color and Robust Taste, and Very Dark Color and Strong Taste.
Once in a while, you’ll still see bags or buckets hanging on maple trees in the late winter. Families and farmers keep the tradition alive, watching the temperatures, and making a trek out to the maple stands as the weather begins to change. The process is filled with nostalgia. Maple sugaring is still time-consuming for the individual. But it’s that first pour of rich maple syrup onto homemade pancakes that harkens back to a tradition that must be savored slowly to be appreciated.