Sweet, gooey, golden maple syrup ran down our chins and onto our ski jackets, but we didn’t care. It was a cold, snowy afternoon when we spied this curious Sugar Shack mid-slope – complete with a wood burning stove and a curious half-tree bench – we were introduced to Maple Syrup Taffy Pops. In fitting fashion, a burly man in flannel came out of the little log building with a pitcher of warm liquid. He grabbed some snow, covered the log then poured the bronze sludge right on the wood. Then he took a popsicle stick and somehow rolled the now hardening syrup onto it – Sugar Daddy style.
This delicious Canadian treat was my first foray into what is now a maple syrup craze. As the natural foods movement has picked up steam in recent years, maple syrup has become, along with honey, an increasingly attractive alternative to processed cane sugar. With sugar getting a bad rap these days, the switch to this all natural complex sweetener has a handful of healthy benefits, from supplying vitamins and minerals and numerous antioxidants to helping lower scores on the glycemic index for those in danger of diabetes, according to Dr. Axe website.
So when my neighbor handed me a jar of homemade maple syrup last year, I insisted he let me help him “tap his trees” the next season. Here in New York the end of February is when the sap starts running - when the temperature is around 40 degrees in the day, followed by freezing nights. He explained that it usually takes about seven days to collect and store sap – any longer and the liquid may spoil.
This past week we marked the trees to be drilled. Ideally, the tree should be at least 12” around, or about 40 years old. He plans to use the same trees as before, but a fresh hole is required. Any maple will run sap; in cold climates, starch gets stored in the tree’s trunks and roots before winter. The starch is then converted to sugar when the sap rises in late winter and early spring. While you can collect sap from other maples, the best syrup comes from sugar, red or black maple species.
Traditionally, farmers used metal pipes and buckets, but these days, most serious sugar makers have foregone labor-intensive buckets, in favor of food-grade plastic and tubing systems. My neighbor purchased small plastic spouts that get inserted ¾ of the way into the hole and 5 gallon water jugs. Both the jugs and the tubing are blue-tinted to protect from UV rays. On other properties I have seen the spouts attached to huge webs of tubing that route the sap into large tanks, but we are a small operation.
It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup because sap is about 98% water. That’s the easy part. As he explained, it takes quite some time (and mess) to boil the sap down. Depending on how much syrup you hope to process, it can take days. I plan to do a little video on our full experience next month, but for now, it’s time to get sappy.
Fun fact: Early settlers in the U.S. Northeast and Canada learned about sugar maples from Native Americans. Legend has it that an Indian chief threw a tomahawk at a tree, sap ran out and his wife boiled venison in the liquid. It may just be that he stumbled on sap running from a broken maple branch, but however you like to look at it, an injured maple tree will ooze a relatively clear, watery substance that early inhabitants of this continent figured out how to utilize and now it’s turned into big business.