Maple Syrup begins as sap in a maple tree. The sap is harvested in the spring when temperatures rise into the 40s during the day and cool off into the 20s at night. It takes a very special place for the conditions to be just right. Maple trees may grow in different parts of the county, but nowhere are there more than in New England. Here, the climate is just about perfect for the trees to grow.
The sugaring season, as it is called, begins in late February in Southern New England and ends in late April in the North Country. The season usually lasts about a month, but it can be extended if the weather is right.
Trees are tapped using a drill to make a small hole. A spile is inserted into the hole and the sap drips out if conditions are right. The sap either drips into a bucket or flows down a special tube to a holding tank. Drop after drop collect until there are gallons upon gallons of sap. Many gallons of sap are needed to make just one gallon of maple syrup. It can range from 35-50 gallons of sap, depending on how much maple sugar there is in the sap. All maple syrup has the same amount of maple sugar, but the maple flavor can be different as we shall learn.
The sap is collected into a large holding tank and from there is fed into the sugar house (the place where the magic happens!). In the sugar house, it is systematically poured into an evaporator (pictured here). Maple sugar evaporators are specially designed to 'boil off' hundreds of gallons of water very quickly and so the sap is concentrated into maple syrup. This is called 'boiling down'.
The evaporator works by first 'pre-heating' the sap so that it is almost boiling. This is done by making use of the steam that is already coming off of the evaporator. A series of pipes works the cold sap through the hot steam under the hood at the rear of the evaporator. The rear portion of the evaporator is where most of the serious boiling takes place. There are groves in the pan that drop down into the heat source below (fire, oil or otherwise). These give the pan more surface area and so the boiling is more fierce.
As the water is boiled off and the sugar becomes more concentrated, the sap moves toward the front of the pan. There, the sap becomes syrup and is 'drawn off' into a pail or some other container before it is filtered. The syrup at this point contains nitre or sugar sand. This needs to be removed from the syrup or it will have an off taste.
Once filtered, the syrup is put in bottles or containers and sealed until someone opens it up to enjoy a sweet treat!
Syrup produced at the beginning of the season is typically lighter in color and sweeter tasting. That maple flavor is not very strong, but is present. This syrup is called 'light' or light amber. As the season progresses, the syrup becomes darker in color and the maple flavor becomes stronger. It first becomes medium amber, then dark amber. After dark amber it becomes 'grade b' syrup, so called because it is not top quality in color. However, many maple syrup aficionados prefer grade b syrup for its wonderful maple flavor. It should be noted that all syrup is equally sweet, however, as the maple flavor gets stronger, it tastes less sweet.
If you're interested in making small quantities in your backyard, we'd like to encourage you to check out our eBook and Forum discussions on how you can. It takes a little work, but the end product is worth it!