The Sweet Story of Maple Syrup
It’s sweet. It’s sticky. Pancakes wouldn’t be the same without it. How much do you really know about maple syrup, a staple for breakfast lovers everywhere?
Here are some quick facts:
- Maple syrup is native to North America. With the exception of the Indigenous Peoples, no one else knew this sweet elixir existed until Europeans crossed the ocean blue.
- Canada exports most of the world’s maple syrup. In fact, you may say that Canada is somewhat “branded” around maple syrup. Check out the Canadian flag – what’s on it? Oh, right, a maple leaf. That’s not to say they make every drop of it, but since the 1990s they have really upped their sappy supply. Until the 1930s, the United States was the leading exporter. Now, Canada produces 80% of the world’s maple syrup, with 70% coming from just one province – Quebec.
- Unless you’re paying close attention to product labeling, you’re probably not eating what you think you’re eating. In the United States, most consumers buy a product that may appear to be maple syrup but is actually high-fructose corn syrup with maple flavoring. It’s significantly cheaper but, in our opinion, it doesn’t hold a candle to the real deal. Maple producers in the US have petitioned the FDA that the word “maple” should not be used on the packaging of these products, but you’ll often find things like “pancake syrup,” “waffle syrup,” or just the word “syrup.”
- Thieves stole $13 million in maple syrup (or around $18 million in Canadian dollars) in a 2012 maple syrup heist. It makes sense once you realize that maple syrup is worth more than oil – one barrel contains about $2,000 worth of syrupy goodness. You can learn more about it via a documentary on Netflix.
Now that you know the facts, let’s dive into how this magical substance goes from inside a maple tree to the top of your waffles. It’s quite a journey.
Which trees does maple syrup come from?
Maple syrup comes from the sap of maple trees. But not all maples produce the same quality sap; the best syrup comes from maples with the highest sugar content in their sap.
The three types of maple tree most frequently used in maple syrup production are sugar maples, red maples, and black maple trees. Red maples have a shorter sap-producing season and therefore are used less often.
Maple trees can be tapped when they are around 30 to 40 years old, and some have continued producing sap even after they reach 200 years old!
In maple syrup production, these trees and the farm itself are referred to as the “sugarbush” or “sugarwood”.
What is maple sap?
During the summer months, tree leaves produce nutrients (sugars) needed for energy through a process called photosynthesis. (That’s one of the many reasons you should not remove too much foliage from a tree and should never top your trees.) These nutrients are the food for the tree, and they flow through the tree’s xylem (kind of like our bloodstream), ensuring that every part of the tree receives vital sustenance.
During the winter, this sugar is turned into starch and stored in the tree’s root system. When the weather starts to warm up in spring, the starch is converted back into sugar and mixes with groundwater to produce sap.
How is Sap Collected?
The freezing nighttime temperatures and warmer daytime temperatures cause pressure to build inside the tree, forcing sap throughout the tree and out of any holes or cuts in the bark. During this time, you’ll often see sap running down the trunk of damaged maple trees and it’s why we avoid pruning maples then.
This temperature flux usually happens between early March and late April, so gathering the sap (called “sugaring season”) only happens for about 4 to 6 weeks.
After drilling a hole, the sap is collected using a metal spout or “spile” hammered into the trunk of the tree. Traditionally, the sap flows into a bucket, but some larger maple syrup farms use bags or even plastic spiles and long plastic tubing that carries the sap to a collection tank.
It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of maple syrup, so you can see why some sugarmakers (what maple syrup producers are called) have 40,000 to 60,000 taps. Each tree has one to three taps, depending on its age and the diameter of the trunk, and produces about 9 to 13 gallons of sap each season.
Does tapping hurt the trees?
There are specific regulations that must be followed when tapping trees for maple syrup production. If a tree is too young, too small, or is suffering from pests or disease, the tree will not be tapped. The number of taps allowed is based on the tree’s size, and no more than three taps are allowed. This ensures that the tree still has enough sap left to grow, and reduces the number of holes drilled into a tree.
The 10 or so gallons that are tapped is a very small percentage of the tree’s overall sap production, which is why several trees have been able to produce sap for over 100 years.
The Sugar Shack: Turning Sap into Maple Syrup
Okay, to be fair, the maple syrup processing buildings aren’t often called sugar shacks anymore, but they used to be! Now usually called the sugarhouse or sugar shanty, this is the area where sap is boiled down to syrup.
The name “sugarhouse” came about because most maple sap used to be boiled down to create maple sugar. Cane sugar had to be imported from the West Indies during the 17th and 18th centuries, so most sugar during that time came from maples instead.
Traditionally, the sap is boiled over a wood fire, though some sugarmakers use oil or electricity to heat the evaporator pans. The sugarhouse’s roof has a vent that allows the maple-scented steam to be released.
Sap starts out as roughly 2% sugar and 98% water. By the time the water is evaporated through boiling (and sometimes also removed through reverse osmosis), the syrup is 66.9% sugar. No wonder it tastes so good!
When the temperature of the liquid reaches seven and a half degrees above the boiling point of water, the sap has reached the proper density (not too watery or too thick) and turned into syrup.
The syrup is filtered to remove any impurities and then bottled while it’s still hot.
Maple syrup grades and colors
If you’ve looked at (real) maple syrup in stores, you may have noticed that some syrup is lighter in color and others are darker. These colors are assigned different “grades,” which are labeled on the product itself.
But what does it all mean?
In short, the lighter maple syrups are from earlier in the season, and the darker maple syrups are from later in the season. The lighter the color, the lighter the taste. The darkest syrup will have the strongest flavor. However, they all contain the same amount of sugar (66.9%) and have all been produced in exactly the same way.
While these grades have varied by states and countries over the years, labeling was made uniform across North America in 2016. The word “grade” can be confusing, as people assume it means that one is better than the other, but in fact, it refers only to the color and taste of the syrup.
If you’re used to the old grades, this article provides a handy explanation of the newer grades.
Here are the current grades of pure maple syrup:
- Grade A – these are the ones you will find in retail locations:
- Golden Color and Delicate Taste – formerly called “Fancy,” most often used for maple cream and maple candies
- Amber Color and Rich Taste – popular table syrup, great for teas
- Dark Color and Robust Taste – formerly called “Grade B,” great for cooking and for glazing meats, or for topping oatmeal or pancakes
- Very Dark Color and Strong Taste – formerly called “Grade C,” mostly used as a commercial ingredient as its strong flavor works well in baking. Used in place of molasses.
- Processing Grade – not sold in retail markets but is used to make other products and is mostly used in agriculture
Why is maple syrup so delicious?
We’re sure that the high sugar concentration has a lot to do with the great taste of maple syrup, but the full and complete chemistry of maple syrup is not completely understood. So sugar and a little mystery make real maple syrup one of the best things on the planet. Just another wonderful product that we have to thank trees for.