Do you like pancakes or waffles in the morning? Most people do. The maple syrup that goes on top makes your breakfast a sweet delight. That syrup that you are pouring has a long history and was one of the most important discoveries here in North America. But just beware that not all maple syrups are the same.
Maple syrup comes from primarily three different species of maple trees, the sugar maple, the black maple and the red maple and the sap of the trees has a sugar content of between 2-5%. Native Americans were the first to harvest the sap of the maple tree and like many traditions the origins of its discovery was passed down orally leading to different stories. One says that maple sap was used in place of water to cook a meal for a chief. Others say it was a gift from the creator or their gods and one even credits its discovery to a squirrel. Either way the discovery of the sweet sap changed native cultures. The Sugar Moon became a popular holiday of sorts as it was the first moon of spring and after performing the Maple Dance the harvesting of the sap began.
The Algonquins used stone tools to make a V-shaped incision and inserted a reed or piece of bark into the tree to drain the sap into a birch-bark bucket. After collection hot cooking stones were dropped into the bucket to concentrate the sap or if the weather was cold they would leave it out at night and let ice form on top and scrape it off in the morning. The collection of the sap is one of the few agricultural processes that Native American tribes in the northeast can claim as their own before European contact.
When Europeans arrived they were quick to be introduced to maple sap. Numerous explorers and fur trappers like French explorer Jacques Cartier were introduced to the sap and began collecting their own. They drilled boreholes into the tree to collect the sap and this soon became a profitable venture. The sugar in the sap offered an alternative to sugar cane from the West Indies, which was especially important for the French as they were shut out of much of the region by the English and Spanish.
The process to turn the sap into sugar was (and still is) very time intensive. The maple trees are tapped at around 30 to 40 years old and can support a maximum of three taps. The average tree produces between 9 and 13 gallons of sap per season, which lasts 4-8 weeks depending on the weather. The starch stored in the roots during winter begins to rise up through the tree during spring days and this is what is harvested. The sap can only be harvested during the day and after harvesting the sap it is placed in a large vessel and boiled until it achieves the desired consistency. In large operations draft animals had to be used to transport the full buckets. In many ways only the materials have changed; wooden buckets have been replaced by metal and later plastics but the method of making maple syrup is still the same though plastic tubing has allowed for the collection of sap on an industrial scale. The maple trees can produce sap until they are around 100 years old.
Much of the sap is water and in some cases 50 gallons of sap after boiling produce only 1 gallon of syrup. This can vary as a higher sugar content means fewer gallons of sap are needed to produce a gallon of syrup. Canada produces 80% of the world’s maple syrup with 75% of the world’s supply coming from Quebec alone, about 25,000,000 gallons. Production is regulated by provincial codes which has also led to a black market for maple syrup there. Every Canadian province except for British Columbia and Alberta produce maple syrup as well. In the United States Vermont is the leader in production at around 1,300,000 gallons, or about 5% of the world’s supply. New York, Maine, Wisconsin, Ohio, New Hampshire, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Connecticut also have syrup production. Internationally Japan and South Korea also produce maple syrup.
But beware not all syrup on the grocery store shelves is maple syrup. While the maple syrup name has become synonymous with syrup the same way Xerox has become synonymous with photocopies, that syrup could only be maple-flavored. High fructose corn syrup has become popular in making syrup which has no maple content. These imitations are some of the most popular syrup brands in the world like Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Butterworth’s or Log Cabin. They are popular since the price is lower but the taste is not the same. Real maple syrup cannot be duplicated (and these imitations are legally forbidden from advertising their product as maple syrup) so give some a try the next time you’re in the breakfast aisle at the grocery store. You might be hooked!