It’s that time of year, longer days, arriving seed catalogs, and occasional spiking temperatures tease of spring. Warmer temperatures bring about another change, and a sweet (and very short lived) season: maple sugaring season. The maple sugaring season is only about 4-6 weeks long – it begins when the weather starts to warm and the maple tree converts starches stored in their root, back into sugar. Freezing night time temperatures and thawing day time temperatures (40-45degF) help build sap pressures up in the tree. A sugar maple with one tap will be around 10-12 inches wide and 40 years old, some sugar maples are 200 years old – you can see it is in the best interests of the sugar-makers to care for their trees and harvest sap sustainably.
Sap is only 2% sugar, the rest of it is ground water, and when it comes out of the tree, it is crystal clear. The sap then has to be boiled down, or reduced to produce maple syrup. Modern systems include reverse osmosis first to remove some of the water, and heating systems fired by oil, wood, or even gas – and this all takes place in buildings called sugar houses (sounds like a fairytale!) But one has to wonder, who first thought it was a good idea to drink sap, and how did we come to boil it down for syrup? (I often wonder the same thing about eggs). One story tells of a chief, returning from a hunt, throws his tomahawk into a tree, a maple tree. Sap oozes from the gash and drips into a hollowed out tree trunk. His wife used this liquid to boil venison, which came out beautifully, sweetly glazed.
Whatever the story around the initial discovery, it is known that early settlers learned about sugar maples from the Native Americans, and that it was mostly dairy farmers who wanted to supplement their income from milk – or who just needed a sweetener that was cheaper than molasses or cane sugar.
It takes 40-50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup, each tap yields 10-20 gallons of sap over the course of the season, which is a yield of a third, or a half a gallon of maple syrup per tree per season. Each gallon of maple syrup weighs about 11 pounds. If you would like to learn more or visit a sugar house, see the sugaring process, and taste the ‘sugar on snow’ (hot, thick syrup dribbled on snow to make instant maple taffy) – now is the time of year to schedule a visit. A good resource for places to visit is DiscoverNewEngland.org/things-to-do/new-englands-maple-sugaring-season.
Maple trees are not the only trees to give up a sugary sap, they are probably just the best, most prolific trees. Other trees can be tapped for sap too: hickory, birch, box elder, and walnuts. Of the maples, sugar maples are the preferred tree to tap, you can also tap silver and red maple trees.
In South Korea, the sap from maple trees is not boiled down, instead, it is consumed as is and credited to a wide range of health benefits, and in this they are not alone. Some people in Japan and China drink maple sap too, and birch sap has its fans in Russia and other parts of Northern Europe. In South Korea however, it is enjoyed in large quantities in the Spring, the equivalent of 50 cans of beer in one sitting! Salty fish is served alongside it to help make participants thirsty, and the taste of the sap is similar to a weak green tea. One thing it is supposedly good for, is settling your stomach when you have a hangover, and it has been found to be rich in minerals, such as calcium.
Frankly, I think I prefer the idea of pouring the syrup over my pancakes. If you decide to try your own hand at tapping, remember, sap is like milk, it will go bad after a while so it is best to store it somewhere cold, and use it within a week. And don’t boil your sap down inside the house, because it produces a large volume of wet steam which has been known to peel wallpaper! And for those of you who prefer the convenience of store bought syrup, we would be amiss if we did not warn consumers of ‘maple flavored’ corn syrup sold in grocery stores – make sure you read labels!
Resources: NY Times, In South Korea, Drinks are on the Maple Tree, March 2009 Discover New England, New Englands Maple Sugaring Season
Time, A Brief History of Maple Syrup, April 2009 TapMyTrees.com