How Maple Syrup Goes from Tap to Table
When winter strikes, maple syrup producers get busy. Learn how the industry might soon change.
Photos: Monica Donovan
The Abenaki Native American tribe in New England has a story to tell about maple syrup. Long ago, the Great Spirit gave the Abenaki people an abundance of food. One of the Great Spirit’s biggest gifts was the maple tree; one only had to break off a twig and the sweet syrup would flow.
Concerned about his people’s well-being, the Great Spirit sent Gluskabe as an envoy to check on the Abenaki. Wandering from village to village, Gluskabe came upon a town in disrepair. He heard a loud, collective moan and found the villagers lying under the maple trees, syrup dripping into their mouths. All the sweet syrup had made the people unhealthy and lazy, and they couldn’t move.
Gluskabe reported his findings back to the Great Spirit, who was displeased. He stopped the flow of syrup and filled the maple trees with sap instead. When the villagers eventually woke from their stupors, Gluskabe told them that from then on, they would need to work for the sweet treat of maple syrup by hauling rocks, lighting fires and boiling the sap over the hot stones.
Today, not many people heat stones and boil buckets of sap to make maple syrup, but the basic process — heating collected maple sap until sweet syrup forms — hasn’t changed. Acer saccharum, or the sugar maple, is the traditional tree tapped for maple syrup production each spring.
Trees are tapped as early as January, depending on the weather, according to Randi and Louise Calderwood, the owners of Echo Hill Farm — a fifth-generation maple syrup farm in East Craftsbury, Vt. “The rule of thumb is that the trees should be tapped by Town Meeting Day,” says Louise Calderwood. Town Meeting Day marks Vermont’s admission to the Union in 1791, and it takes place every year on the first Tuesday of March. “But cold weather can pop the taps out, so you have to go through and tap them back in. In January, you spend time repairing the sap lines.”
Typically, sap starts flowing in early March when daytime temperatures are above freezing and nighttime temperatures are below freezing. The daytime and nighttime temperature fluctuations and changing pressure acts as a pump that pushes sap out through the tap and into the lines that drain the sap to the sugarhouse where syrup is made. Sap flows for six to seven weeks, but when the maple trees start to bud, the sap becomes bitter and sap collection stops for the season.
How Maple Syrup Is Made
Sugar maples are tapped with plastic spigots (older spigots used were metal), and the taps are connected via plastic tubing to a collection tank in the sugarhouse. Some syrup operations use a vacuum to help pull sap from the trees, while others position the sugarhouse downhill from the trees, relying on gravity to gather the sap toward the collection tank.
Although the next major step in the syrup-making process is to boil the sap, some sugar producers first will use a reverse osmosis machine to remove water from the sap. “The reverse osmosis machine we have removes about 80 percent of the water from the sap before we begin boiling,” says Marsha LaPorte, who runs Burgess Sugarhouse in Underhill, Vt. with her husband, Bill, and their family. “This saves greatly on wood and time spent boiling. With the reverse osmosis machine, we can now make 40 gallons of syrup per hour — as opposed to 5 gallons per hour using the same amount of wood.”
The sap is moved into an evaporator, where it snakes through a series of steam pans over a heat source, increasing in sugar concentration and decreasing in water after progressing through each pan. Sap officially becomes syrup at 219 degrees Fahrenheit. By the time it gets to the last pan, the maple sap has turned to maple syrup.
From A to B: Maple Syrup Grades
Maple syrup characteristics vary according to when a syrup was made during the maple sugaring season. The earlier in the season the sap is harvested, the more translucent the syrup. But contrary to popular belief, syrup grades do not suggest superiority, merely different attributes.
The United States and Canada use different terms for national maple syrup grades, and some states, such as Vermont and New York, use their own classification systems to regulate production and marketing. Last year, the Vermont Maple Syrup Makers Association released new labeling standards “to provide a more accurate description based on consumer preference.” Labeling all four classifications as “Grade A” syrups and describing both color and flavor, New York State also is adopting these standards. “The goal is that it will become an international standard,” says Helen Thomas, executive director of the New York State Maple Producers Association.
To this end, the maple syrup industry petitioned for revisions to the federal classification system, and from May 7 to July 7, 2014, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service collected comments on proposed changes that would shift the emphasis to flavor. As of press date, no announcements have been made about changes to the federal grades for maple syrup, but should the revisions be accepted, the expectation would be that the Canadian food inspection agency would be on the same trajectory, according to Matt Gordon, executive director of the Vermont Maple Syrup Makers Association.
Nutrition Profile of Maple Syrup
No matter where maple syrup hails from in North America, its nutritional content is nearly identical. Despite being primarily sugar (about 66 percent by weight, mostly in the form of sucrose), maple syrup contains a variety of nutrients and potentially beneficial natural compounds, including small amounts of amino acids as well as polyphenols. It’s a good source of the B vitamin riboflavin (61 percent Daily Value), as well as several minerals: a standard ¼-cup serving provides more than 100 percent of the Daily Value for manganese, and roughly 8 percent of the Daily Value for both calcium and zinc. In fact, scientists have identified more than 60 compounds in maple syrup, including phenolics that inhibit carbohydrate hydrolyzing enzymes and a “process-derived compound” aptly named Quebecol (for the Canadian province of Quebec, the world’s leading maple syrup-producing region). Created when sap is boiled down into maple syrup, Quebecol is a novel phenolic compound that has yet to be tested for bioactivity in animal or human studies. At roughly 50 calories per tablespoon of maple syrup, portion control is called for — but as far as sweeteners go, maple syrup has a lot going for it.
Although pancake purists may scoff, topping a short stack is merely the beginning when it comes to culinary uses for maple syrup. Using maple syrup in cooking provides a depth of flavor that goes beyond sweetness. In fact, darker syrup is sometimes preferred for its more robust flavor and color — but they are all interchangeable as long as you’re using 100-percent maple syrup. Here are a few ideas:
- Sauces and glazes
From sweet glazes for roasted fall vegetables or maple-based sauces for pork or chicken, even barbecue sauce works with maple syrup.
Maple syrup is versatile and may be used to sweeten any beverages, hot or cold, from lemonade to lattes.
- Swap in syrup, swap out sugar
Recipes that call for brown sugar or granulated sugar can often be made with maple syrup instead. Try it with granola, baked beans or cooked fruit desserts to start. Baking with maple syrup requires some adjustments to the recipe (using less liquid, for example), so seek out recipes specifically formulated for maple syrup unless you’re willing to experiment.
Sea Salt Caramel Macaroon Bars
Developed by Amari Thomsen
2 cups shredded coconut, unsweetened
½ cup coconut oil
¾ cup almond meal
¼ cup maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon sea salt
¼ cup water
½ cup coconut palm sugar
1 cup coconut milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ cup dark chocolate chips
- In a food processer, mix together the coconut base ingredients until well combined, scraping down the sides as needed.
- Press mixture into an 8-inch square baking pan lined with parchment paper. Place pan in the freezer to allow it to set while you make the caramel layer.
- In a small saucepan, combine water and coconut palm sugar. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to a simmer. Add coconut milk, vanilla extract and sea salt. Cook for 8 minutes, stirring constantly until the mixture begins to thicken and darken in color. Remove from heat and allow the mixture to cool for a few minutes.
- Remove square pan from the freezer. Pour the caramel mixture over the coconut base. Return pan to the freezer. Freeze bars overnight or for at least 5 hours to allow caramel layer to set.
- In a small saucepan, heat dark chocolate chips over low heat, stirring constantly until melted.
- Remove bars from the freezer and drizzle with chocolate. Sprinkle with additional shredded coconut if desired.
- Cut bars into squares and store in the freezer.
Serving size: 1 bar
Calories: 331; Total fat: 27g; Saturated fat: 21g; Cholesterol: 0mg; Sodium: 168mg; Carbohydrates: 22g; Fiber 3g; Sugars 16g; Protein: 3g; Potassium: N/A*; Phosphorus: N/A*
*Reliable nutrition information for almond meal, coconut palm sugar and dark chocolate baking chips was not found.
Erin Sund is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Kit Broihier, MS, RD, is a freelance writer and public relations consultant based in Maine.