According to legend, the Earth Mother, Kokomis, carved a hole in a maple tree and syrup just poured out.
But when her grandson, Manabush, sampled a dab on his finger, he warned, this is delicious! — dangerously so. Surely it would corrupt the tribe, making them weak and lazy. So he watered the tree, and the syrup diluted and flowed as a watery sap.
But if we can’t hold out a plate of fried chicken and waffles under a gushing sugar tree, how is maple syrup made anyway?
But First—Where Does Maple Syrup Come From?
Before it gets from tap to table, we have to talk about maple trees, without which pancakes would cry out for help. Every tree produces sap that transports vital nutrients from its base up through its branches. And it’s a little known fact that many different trees, including sycamore and birch, can yield a syrup. But the maple holds the prize for its sap’s high sugar content.
Then you need the right conditions: nights below freezing and days hovering in the 40s. This limits most maple syrup production to a period between mid February and mid March and to a region encompassing southeastern Canada and northeastern United States.
Canada is home to the largest syrup producing biomes in the world, of which the province of Quebec takes the lion’s share. Canada produces about twice as much as all of the United States, in which Vermont produces about twice as much as New York.
Before winter sets in, maple trees store starch in their roots and trunks until spring when they convert it into sugar (you know — photosynthesis and stuff). During a freezing night, the sap expands, ready to burst. As the sun warms the tree in the day, it thaws the sap and finally oozes out as a watery prelude to the concentrated syrup we all love.
How is Maple Syrup Made?
Now, when you think of sap, you may think of the sticky amber glue you’d get on your hands climbing a tree as a child. But in the case of maple, the sap is mostly water. In fact, it takes between 30 and 50 gallons of sap to make a single gallon of syrup.
In early spring, small holes are bored into any new trees in the sugarbush (a lovely name for a forest of maples). These holes are called taps and each tree can stay healthy with about two. “It’s like the tree’s giving blood,” said Arnold Coombs of Bascom Maple Farms. “It’s a very small percentage of the tree’s sap.”
Optimal conditions are a proper spring with freezing nights and warmish days. That’s why global warming is threatening to make maple syrup a scarce commodity. “Sugaring season,” as it’s called, all boils down to about 30 prime days when the sap really guzzles out of the tap, bringing us to our next step.
The taps are connected to flexible hoses that snake downhill into larger pipes that flow into a holding tank. On bigger operations, vacuum power is used and the sap is pumped or trucked to the main “sugarhouse” where it’s held in enormous cisterns.
The nostalgic among us will rest assured that smaller homesteads still prefer the traditional method of fixing a bucket under the tap — no pipes snaking through the forest. But even larger operations host a healthy biodiversity.
Coombs said, “On our farm, there’s maples, ash, oak, poplar. There are no monocultures in the maple industry.”
Boiling and Evaporating
As sap straight from the tree is, well, maple water, it needs to be concentrated into that dark syrup of our dreams. When the sap is collected from the maple tree, the concentration of sugar is very low. Thus, the sap must be boiled in order to increase the sugar concentration and create true maple syrup.
Producers reach this outcome by boiling off water using an evaporator until reaching 68% sucrose. Many producers use a wood-fired evaporator that is capable of boiling over 100 gallons of sap in an hour
After the water is boiled away, the syrup is filtered of calcium residues and other contaminants. It’s tested for quality and graded, a process we’ll cover below. Finally, it’s heated again to at least 180° Fahrenheit to kill any bacteria that may have formed while it had cooled in storage. The hot maple syrup also sterilizes the bottle as it’s poured to the brim and sealed airtight.
The finished product contains zero preservatives, has an almost indefinite shelf life and can be kept in the freezer without a problem.
Finding the Highest Quality Maple Syrup
Let’s get one fact out of the way — grades have always referred to a maple syrup’s concentration, not its quality.
The original idea was that the darker grades were a little too rich. Grade A simply referred to all but the darkest maple syrup, which was labeled Grade B. Dark syrup is actually as delicious because it is concentrated and can be used in many baked goods. However, people naturally assumed it was inferior.
So the industry united to dispel what was becoming a public relations hazard. In 2014 they did away with Grade B altogether. Now all syrup, as long as it’s certified, gets an A!
It’s then further classified by color and flavor like so:
- Golden (delicate)
- Amber (rich)
- Dark (robust)
- Very Dark (strong)
What grade you choose is up to your taste and what you’re using it on — whether you’re drizzling golden syrup over your morning pancakes or using very dark syrup in your homemade version of Blue Bottle’s winter spice granola (I tried the latter)!
Nonetheless, be sure to buy pure maple syrup as opposed to imitations. The only ingredient should be maple syrup. What’s the difference between legit maple syrup and the cheap stuff? More on our blog here.
A Final Chapter for the Sugar Snobs
Sure, different growing regions make for different soils, and these variations make for distinctions in flavor. However, most maple syrup is produced in such a way that small farms usually sell to larger guilds that collect the various yields and bottle it under one brand.
While it’s out there, single origin maple syrups are the exception rather than the rule. Coombs added, “Anything you’re going to get in a grocery store is blended. And in almost all cases, that’s for a better product. You can get rid of flavors to get a consistent flavor profile.”
So it all boils down to taste. Order a couple bottles from a variety of regions. Try a blend of sugarhouses. Or try a bottle of our certified organic amber maple syrup harvested in the hills of New Hampshire on a family farm that has been sugaring since 1853.
Coombs said, “I’ve tasted tens of thousands of samples in my life. There’s a lot to the subtleties of maple syrup that we still don’t understand.”
Taste a difference? Congratulations, you’re what I dub a sugar snob. Welcome to the club.
Download Our Free Guide to Sustainable Living.
From reducing waste to recycling and upcycling, our e-book shows simple ways to make choices you can feel good about.Get Your Free Guide