Maple syrup was first made by the Native Americans but, no one really knows when they started doing it. From them the knowledge was passed on to the new colonials who could then make their own sugar. Back then, it was a very hard process. As more and more people began producing maple syrup, the technology of doing so improved gradually. From carrying each bucket of sap to a central area for processing on foot to today's intricate tubing layouts which lets the sap flow to storage tanks effortlessly.

Going from maple tree sap to maple syrup is a fairly easy process. First, maple trees are tapped (preferably from a species with high sugar content such as the sugar and black maple.) A 7/16 diameter hole is drilled 2.5 to 3 inches deep into the trunk at about 3 or 4 feet above ground level. The tree should be healthy and at least 12 inches in diamater when measured at 4.5 feet above the ground. Tapping is, for the most part, done during the spring when weather conditions are right -- otherwise there won't be any sap flow. Ideal weather conditions are when temperatures at night reach below freezing and during the next day reach above freezing relatively quickly. This will maximize the amount of sap that can be collected.

Once the hole is drilled a spile is inserted which acts like a valve. It keeps the hole unexposed to the outside while allowing the sap to flow into the collection container. Sap can be collected up until the tree starts budding -- sap collected from budding trees does not taste very good. Once the sap has been collected, it's time for processing.

Processing the sap to make it into syrup is really just a matter of applying the correct amount of heat. What is happening is the water is being evaporated from the sap which concentrates the sugars. During this, chemical changes occur which give maple syrup its flavor. The sap is boiled over constant heat until most of the water has been evaporated. As more water evaporates, the temperature at which the syrup boils rises very slowly. It is finished when it boils at 7.1 degrees (farenheit) above the boiling point of water -- which varies at different elevations and climates.

Once the syrup is "finished" at the right temperature, it is filtered to remove any sugar grains or any other imperfections. The finished product, pure maple syrup, is then packaged at about 180 degrees farenheit. It's then ready for consumption.

There is a standard grading system used for maple syrup; Grade 'A' Light Amber, Grade 'A' Medium Amber, Grade 'A' Dark Amber, and Grade B. Grade 'A' Light Amber has a very delicate flavor and is very light (as the name implies.) Grade 'A' Medium Amber is a little darker and has a stronger flavor than Light Amber. Grade 'A' Dark Amber is even darker and, not surprisingly, has an even stronger flavor than Medium Amber. Grade B has the strongest flavor of them all. Each grade usually corresponds with a certain time within the sugaring season (when sap is collected.) Light Amber is usually made when the season is early and still cold, Medium Amber when the season begins to warm a bit at around mid-season, and Dark Amber from when the days become longer and warmer. None are "better" than the others, it's all a matter of personal taste. I suggest you try each kind to see which one you like the most.

If you are buying that stuff that is "Made with 2% real maple syrup!" and the rest is corn syrup with artificial flavoring, etc., please dump it down the sink, now! Run to the local health/whole food store and pick up some organic (if possible), pure maple syrup. There's nothing like it -- it's great stuff. Once you go from the fake stuff to the real stuff you'll want to throw rotten produce at the CEO of the company making the fake stuff for fooling you for so long.

"The Savages of Canada, in the time that the sap rises, in the Maple, make an incision in the Tree, by which it runs out; and after they have evaporated eight pounds of the liquor, there remains one pound as sweet ...."

from British Royal Society paper, 1685
"The Maple Syrup Story History of Maple Syrup"

It takes a sugar maple growing in the northeastern United States nearly 40 years to reach a diameter of 12 inches, wide enough to tap for maple sap, more than half a lifetime for most of us. A tree this size will yield about 10 gallons of sap in a season, which gets boiled down to a quart of maple syrup.

One quart.

A quart of fancy grade maple syrup at retail prices will get you about $15-20 dollars. To get this quart of syrup, 10 gallons of sap needs to be boiled down, either using wood or petroleum for fuel. Making maple syrup will put a little cash in your pockets.

The same tree will yield about $50 worth of wood if sold to a timber company. The retail value is much higher, of course, but without lifting a finger beyond signing a contract, the landowner can exchange his tree for a stump, and pocket 300% more money than he would make in a season making maple syrup, were he so inclined to do the labor.

If you take an accountant's view, with labor a minimum of $5.15/hour, well, you end up losing "value" or money or whatever it is we think is more tangible than currency. It's thinking like that that got us the 98% corn syrup version of syrup. If Indians were better accountants, we would not know what real maple syrup tasted like.

Fortunately for us, the Indians needed calories more than cash. Maple syrup and maple sugar provided calories in a time of the year when other sources were scarce.

When the Indians gathered in northern forests to collect maple sap, it was cold. The full Hunger Moon marked the trails at night as families gathered at the sugaring grounds. While it is easy to romanticize maple sugaring, late winter evenings in Vermont are cold. Animals and people starve.

One Indian myth parallels the fable of Eden. Maple trees once ran full of syrup, but a god filled trees with rainwater to make the Indians work for their bounty. I do not know what offense caused the god to dilute the sap. Our God punished us for seeking knowledge we ought not seek--something we seem to have forgotten.

Imagine shivering on an icy March night, under the waning moonlight. Your children whimper. The trees look inert, dead. The stars are visible through the leafless branches.

The trees are gashed, and the next day the sap flows and flows and flows. Fires are started. Rocks heated in the fires are dropped in the wooden vats holding the sap, to drive the water off as steam.

You are a hungry child. Your first taste of spring is maple syrup. You are alive.

Indians shared their knowledge with the pale folk. In our warm homes with our exuberant bellies splashing maple syrup on pancakes year round, we forget that calories mean life.

The process of maple sugaring remains essentially the same, which means it remains inefficient. It will never be profitable to those who insist on selling pure maple syrup. General Foods figured this out a long time ago. Look at the ingredients on Aunt Jemima Syrup. Look again. How much maple syrup is in it?

Sugaring is the act of gently gathering what the maple tree has to offer, and then feeding your senses with it through every step of the process; and knowing that you will be able to do it again next year and the next, without harming a thing.

Trish Norton
What We Do and Why We Do It

Ms. Norton will never make it as the CEO of a publicly owned company. She probably would not last long in a cubicle. She might even get a bit cold in February, trying to coax heat from maple logs in her woodstove.

The Krueger-Norton family taps about a thousand maple trees each spring. Trish's daughters spent hours and hours in cribs in the sugar house, the maple steam humidying the air. The family burns 6 tons of wood a day during peak sugaring season. It doesn't make much economic sense, but I bet her kids are healthier for it.

I'd be willing to wager she will have fewer regrets than most of us when our vision fades. You might want to ask her--she lives in Cuttingsville,Vermont, and you can call toll free: 1-888-486-9460.

If you really like the maply in maple syrup, look for Grade B. Maple sap was traditionally used for sugar. The less color and flavor in the final product, the higher the grade--the point was the sugar, not the mapleness. The grading system persists today.

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