Amateur and professional drinkers of wine and coffee are very familiar with the flavors that are used to evaluate the complex tastes of those beverages. Grass, cinnamon, peach, and almond are among the dozens of compounds that can found among the sensory description wheels or charts for wine and coffee. But did you also know that those words are also used by the maple syrup industry?
Maple sugar and syrup production has been a part of northeastern North American culture since before the Europeans arrived en masse in the 17th century. The native indigenous peoples passed their methods down from generation to generation through oral history and traditions. In fact, the methods that they used to gather sap and produce maple syrup were so basic that they have changed little in essence into the 21st century. The Algonquians used stone tools to make the incisions into the trunk from which reeds were inserted which allowed the sap to run into birch buckets or scooped-out sections of a trunk. The sap was concentrated in much the same way that most cooking was done; by dropping heated stones into the liquid, raising the temperature to the point that steam carries off the excess water.
Laura Ingalls Wilder described the maple sugaring process in her book The Little House in the Big Woods. Chronicling her life in 1870s Wisconsin, Mrs. Wilder recounted the late winter tapping of the maple trees and the making of maple syrup which they called ‘sugaring off’. The buckets of maple syrup supplied them with a sweetening agent for the next year, especially in the very basic meal of ‘hasty pudding’; cornmeal cooked in water to a thick mush that was sweetened with maple syrup. The syrup was also boiled past the syrup stage until it crystallized, poured into pans, and allowed to cool into rounds of maple sugar.
There have been developments in the past four centuries that have streamlined and improved production. Wooden taps and then metal spiles replaced reeds, wooden buckets were replaced with metal buckets, plastic bags, or even tubing that allowed the sap to be collected from many trees at a time into a holding vat. When maple trees are 30-40 years old they are large enough to tap, and can support 2-3 taps each, depending on the diameter of the trunk.
Once collected, sap must be reduced a great deal, from 20 to 50 gallons to a single gallon of syrup. It must be boiled carefully so that sugar crystals do not form. Once boiled in large kettles, sap is now heated in flat, open pans that increase the rate of evaporation and speed up the process.
I attended a maple sugaring workshop sponsored by the Arboretum at Connecticut College this past weekend and get a first-hand view of some of the techniques. The first step in maple sugaring is tree identification and Jim Luce, our instructor, gave us some tips. Tree identification during the winter takes a bit more investigation than it does in the summer when the distinctive, palmate, simple, opposite leaves (seen the Canadian flag?) and samara (helicopters) are present. However, few species, maple among them, have the distinctive opposite buds and branches. Sugar maple bark is gray, going from smooth to furrowed and its twigs are light brown with scattered white lenticels. The buds are red or brown and pointed and the sap is clear, not cloudy.
The most desirable maple species are Sugar maple (Acer saccharum), Red maple (A. rubrum), and Black maple (A. nigrum) due to a 2-5% sugar content although syrup can be made from walnut (Juglans) and birch (Betula) sap also. Birch sap runs a bit later in the season so that you could collect that in April and make syrup after the maple season has ended. Tapping of maples starts in early February once temperatures are above 32° F during the day and below that at night and generally runs for 4-6 weeks.
Rather than describe the tapping process step by step, here is a video of the workshop that was held on a cold and breezy day:
It was an enjoyable experience, especially the tasting of the finished product poured over ice cream! We sampled a commercially prepared Grade A syrup that was darker in color but less tasty than the sap that Jim boiled down from sap collected yesterday.
The newly cooked sap had definite vanilla undertones and was sweeter with being cloying. Oh yes, I have a new appreciation for the complexities of maple syrup and for the cost of a quality product now that I have seen the amount of work that goes into it. Pancakes, anyone?