If heaven has a smell, I know it is that of the steam rolling out of a maple syrup shack in the late of winter.
My dad and uncle work together each year to make maple syrup, as their grandfather did before them in the very same woods. As I write, they are “boiling” maple sap now in a sugar camp far, far away.
“Maple season” (or “sugar season”), the brief time when sap runs through the tree and can be made into syrup, occurs usually in late February or early March.
As winter loosens its grip on nature and mud makes its first appearance, sugar, stored as starch in the maple tree’s roots, begins to rise through the trunk to the limbs of the tree to feed the developing buds. Freeze at night and thaw in day. Freeze at night and thaw in day. A cycle of freezing and thawing promotes the sap’s running through the tree. During this time, and this time only, can sap be tapped from the tree for maple syrup; one year this may be late February and another year it may be mid-March.
The number of days or weeks a sugar season lasts will be uncertain and controlled by the temperatures; a few degrees up or down can shut the sap running off. If it freezes too hard at night, the sap may not run. If the day is too warm, the sap may not run. Once the trees bud, you’re done for sure. Completely predictably unpredictable, even when you think it’s predictable. Life.
“Tapping” the trees refers to drilling a hole in the tree and placing a spigot to drain the sap water into a bucket or into tubing.
Great Grandpa Grover collected sap in buckets, but Dad and my uncle use tubing to drain and run the sap from the tree to large collecting tanks set throughout the woods. The “woods” is a large stand of trees and is frequently called a “sugar bush”, although “sugar bush” can also imply the building the syrup is boiled in too. Tubing runs like a giant spiderweb networking the forest.
Before tubing can be run, a 3/8 inch hole is drilled into healthy mature sugar maple trees, which are usually anywhere from 40-100 years old and at least 12 inches in diameter. More than one hole may be drilled in a tree, depending on its size. The hole does not damage the tree, and it seals up without ill effect. Apparently other maple trees(such as silver maple) can be tapped besides sugar maples, but I don’t know about that. We and most other people use sugar maples.
After the hole is drilled, a spigot (or spile) is inserted. If a bucket is to be used, it is hung now and the top is covered to keep out unwanted debris and animals. Otherwise, tubing is connected to the spigot to drain the sap. The clear sap water, which is nearly tasteless and only has a suggestion of sweetness, runs through the tubing to other tubing until, ultimately it drains into large collecting tanks placed throughout the woods.
The sap that has collected in the holding tanks must be tranported to the building with the evaporator.
Our “camp”, the building with the evaporator where the sap is boiled, is at the edge of the woods. Periodically during the day the level of the collecting tanks in the woods are checked. My dad or uncle will take an ATV through the knee-deep mud to do a “tank check”. I smile when I think of the exasperation in my uncle’s voice when he comes back from a tank check, and the sap has surprisingly overflowed the tank. When a tank is full, a tractor (it has to be International for this family) pulling a transportable tank will be taken back to transfer the sap from the collecting tank to the transfer tank drawn by the tractor. Back at the camp, the sap is now again transferred into a tank inside the sugar house (the building with the evaporator).
The evaporator condenses 40 gallons of sap to 1 gallon of maple syrup.
The sap flows into a large evaporator pan that sits over a rip-roaring firebox fed by wood. Sometimes the fire blazes so hot, the doors burn red. The size of a sugar camp’s evaporator varies. Some don’t even have an evaporator but do it in a pot over an open fire. Mom and Dad’s honeymoon was spent in New York searching for a new evaporator for the sugar camp. The two didn’t even make it to the Statue of Liberty. But I believe they got the evaporator. The evaporator is a series of pans with channels allowing the syrup to flow in such a way that there is more control over the syrup’s development and temperature. At the start, it’s clear sap water, only 2-3% sugar. By the end, it’s delicious smelling syrup. A “hydrometer” is used to determine the density of the syrup and thus the sugar content. Sap becomes syrup at 219.5 degrees fahrenheit and 67% sugar.
It takes approximately 40 gallons of sap water to make 1 gallon of syrup.
Because you have to wait for the daytime temperature to bring about a thaw and cause the sap to run, maple syrup is usually made in the evening and night. The atmosphere is warm and cozy. Family, friends, and neigbors stop in and visit while roasting hot dogs, pork chops, and hamburgers on the hot doors of the stove. Aunt Holly’s “sugar candy” occasionally graces the buffet. Syrup is made late into the night and wee hours of the morning, always carefully monitored.
Canning it Off
Our evaporator has a faucet at the point where the sap becomes syrup. The syrup can be taken out. It is poured through a cheesecloth into a finishing tank, where it is reheated to boiling and canned (or bottled) off.
Sugar is Sugar is Sugar but…maple syrup is unique.
While I mostly think that “sugar is sugar is sugar”, maple syrup does have the advantage of providing in a 1/4 cup serving:
- 100% of your recommended daily allowance (RDA) of manganese
- 37% of your RDA of riboflavin (vitamin B2)
- 18% of your RDA of zinc
- Magnesium, calcium, and potassium run about 7% of the RDA
There are 50 calories per tablespoon or 217 in that 1/4 cup serving.
Now, I am not telling you to do this in any way, shape, or form. Remember, I’m a stay at home, homeschooling mom. But my mom used to give us kids maple syrup in our milk when we were constipated and swears by it. I think I had it daily–now I know it was the dairy–but that’s another story.
As I regulate all sugar in my house, I place our maple syrup in a condiment squirt bottle and try to ration it like crazy, using as little as possible and then adding more if needed. It is not allowed on SCD and GAPS because the sugar content is mostly sucrose, but once you move past the year or two on your diet, give maple syrup a thought. It makes great barbecue sauce and baked beans. On my grain-free waffle recipe, it’s spot on. Yum.
What’s the Grade?
Maple syrup is graded, and the grading system varies whether it’s from Canada (who produces 80% of the maple syrup) or from the United States. Now everybody has their preferences, but if you ask me, skip the “light” and “fancy”. You might as well buy Karo corn syrup. The rich, magnificent maple flavor that you want comes in the “lower” grade syrup. The cheaper syrup!!!! (But obviously make sure it IS REAL MAPLE SYRUP!) When I tell Dad I need syrup, it’s the dark stuff he gives me. Save that light stuff to sell to people who don’t know better. I get fussy if he gives me the light stuff; it’s a little runnier, clearer, and although sweet, there’s very little maple flavor.
Interestingly, grade cannot be controlled or made by the maple farmer. It is Mother Nature. Certain soils and trees produce more or less light syrup. Certain weather conditions over the year influence grade production. How much the farmer gets of what grade will change from year to year. And usually the earlier in the season the syrup is made, the lighter the grade. It is lighter earlier because the first runs have the higher sugar content and thus don’t have to be boiled as long. By the time the end of the season arrives, the sap’s sugar content is down a bit and so it must be boiled longer, condensing all the nutrients that impart that delicious, rich MAPLE flavor–not to mention more “nutritious”, as far as sweeteners go!
History of Maple Syrup
Maple syrup is characteristic of the North American continent. The legend tells that an Iroquois chief’s wife discovered a trough of maple sap, either in an old hollowed stump or underneath where her husband had thrown his tomahawk into a maple tree. She used the sap as water to boil some meat, and the rest is history. Although Benjamin Franklin wanted to make America self-sufficient sugar-wise on maple syrup rather than refined white sugar, that never panned out.
My mom and dad use maple syrup liberally. Once opened, store maple syrup in the refrigerator. If the sugar crystalizes on the bottom, heat the syrup and it will dissolve again (or fish the crystallized chunks out and eat them like candy).
- Pancakes, waffles, and French toast
- Ice cream
- To sweeten applesauce either before or after canning
- To top fresh sliced bananas with a sprinkle of cinnamon
- Mix into baked beans
- Great for barbecue sauces
- Mix with unsweetened almond butter along with a little vanilla and salt]
- Drizzled on top of meat loaf so that as it bakes it caramelizes
- Use interchangably with sugar when baking, but you must reduce the liquid content by 3 tablespoonsful.
Although this article is about maple syrup, really it is about family. I have the best family in the world. We’re crazy and nuts, but I cannot tell you how I will always cherish the time spent with my dad, sisters, aunt, uncle, cousins, and now my wonderful husband and children during syrup season. Mom always stayed home if she could. I always wondered why. Now that I have three of my own, I know! Free night for mom!
I cherish the memories of “sugar season”, and it warrants a special trip home. I’m telling you , there’s nothing finer than a night at the sugar camp with my family. I hope that you, too, will find a special time to spend with your children, that they might share it with the world someday in their own way.