Spring in Ontario means a few things: Snow is beginning to melt while the mud appears, farm animals are prancing around enjoying warmer temperatures and all across the north eastern parts of North America…maple syrup producers are out in full force tapping trees, collecting sap and boiling it down to make it into the sweet delicacy that is fresh maple syrup!
On our farm we mix the goodness technology affords us with the knowledge from our past and this is definitely present in our sugarbush. On our farm we’re a little more old fashioned than some when it comes to making maple syrup. Our sugarbush has no pipeline, it is entirely buckets (around 1000 this year!). We collect everything by hand and bring it back to our evaporator – which is wood burning and sits down just outside of our sugarbush. This is the way we’ve always made maple syrup, and it works for us, so it’s the way that we continue to make it, enjoying the sweet smell of spring each year as the sap boils down into a golden liquid nectar.
Making maple syrup is actually a pretty fascinating and complex process…here are five of my favourite things you (probably) didn’t know about maple syrup!
5) There are different grades of maple syrup…most commonly light, medium and amber. Light has the most delicate maple flavour, is very light brown. Medium is a little stronger in maple flavour, and is slightly darker. Amber has the strongest maple flavour and is the darkest, with a deep brown colour. All grades actually all have the same sugar content and sweetness, it’s just the actual MAPLE flavour that changes. Here’s the kicker though: Maple syrup producers don’t get the choose what grade of syrup they get to make! Whatever the trees give them, is what they get! In the beginning of the season the sugar content of the sap is higher, so we don’t have to boil it as long and we make light maple syrup. As we continue throughthe season, the sugar content in the sap drops and we have to boil it longer to reach the same sugar content of syrup, which makes a different grade of syrup. All are equally delicious and great for eating, baking and enjoying in any way you can, though if you’re baking or cooking, I’d recommend using Amber syrup as the maple flavour comes through the best with it. Like a lot of things, that grades are actually on a spectrum, and not cut and dry…so you can have a very light light, a light that’s almost medium, or an medium that’s almost amber, an amber that’s lighter or an amber that’s very dark – it all just depends on the sap you started out with.
4) You can make a TON of things from pure maple syrup without adding anything to it! You can make hard candy, soft sugar, stirred sugar, toffee on snow, maple butter and so much more from maple syrup! You don’t have to add any fancy ingredients and all you need is a pot, a spoon, a candy thermometre, a willing taste tester and some pure maple syrup! By adding heat, removing more of the water from the syrup and adding movement and friction, we can create a TON of awesome maple products without using anything else! (Science is AWESOME!)
3) Tapping a tree and taking sap from it doesn’t hurt it! Like all things in farming, maple syrup producers take great care in making sure that their sugar bushes are healthy and well looked after. No matter what method they’re using…whether they have pipelines or buckets, a wood evaporator or an electric one, whether they choose to use reverse osmosis to remove some of the water before boiling or not – they take great care to ensure their sugar bush health. This means that each year special consideration is taken when tapping the tree to tap in a new location that hasn’t been tapped before, so that the tree can continue to heal any taps from previous years. Taps are put in a tree based on it’s size, to make sure that we’re not taking away too many of the nutrients that it needs in order to survive, and we take the taps out after each syrup season is over so that the tree can easily heal the hole where the spile once was. It’s actually a lot like donating blood – we don’t take away enough of the sap to hurt the tree, but can take a little bit and do something good with it! Like on every aspect of the farm, best management practices are used so that we can continue to farm and produce syrup for years to come!
2) Sap flows UP. It goes against basically everything we’re taught about gravity in public school but it’s true! During the summer, the trees leaves use photosynthesis to turn sunlight into food and energy. It starts collecting these and storing them in it’s roots, where they are stored all winter long. In the spring, the stored nutrients begin to thaw, and the tree beings to come out of its dormancy and absorb water and take the nutrients it has up to the different branches and parts of the tree. When we have a warm spring day, the sap begins to make it’s way up the tree. (The ideal temperature for sap to flow is about -6C at night and +6C during the day.) As the temperature drops, the sap retreats. It is during this process of the sap going up and down the trunk of the tree all spring (attempting to get sap to the different parts of the tree so that it can take nutrients to different branches and start the process of making buds and leaves) that we can collect a small amount of sap from the maple tree. Once the sap has made it’s way all the way up and buds start to come out, you can’t collect sap anymore because the sap will be bitter.
1) Sap is almost ENTIRELY water when it comes from the maple tree. It’s usually about 97-99% water, with only around 1-3% sugar content. That’s why it’s clear and looks and tastes a lot like water…and that means we have to boil it A LOT to evaporate the water and concentrate the sugar. You need approximately 40 litres of sap to make only 1 litre of syrup!