Maple syrup production is far older than the presence of Europeans in North America. Maple trees are found throughout the continent, but conditions for the production are best in cooler regions of the northeast. The leading syrup producers are Maine, Vermont, and New York, with Vermont generally leading in total official production. Eastern Canada also makes a great deal of syrup.
Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is the prime syrup producing tree. Black maple (Acer nigrum) is very closely related and just about as good for syrup production. Best specimens of these trees produce sap containing up to 4 percent sugar. Soft or red maples can also be tapped (Acer rubrum) and these produce a sugary sap, but the sugar content is generally half or less that of the better species. Birch sap can also be collected and used for various products. In fact, there is quite a range of products that can be made from the forest trees of the region.
Tapping starts in this area in February or March. At this time lengthening days signal the trees that spring is on the way. The trees seem to believe that sooner than the humans in the region.
On warm days sap rises in the trunk and then settles back to the roots at night. Warm days with cold nights are prime for producing sap. There are often a few days, even in early February when some sap could be collected, but most people, do not start until late February or early March. A traditional start date was February 26, but it seems that few people observe that date now.
The season is generally over by the time the snow melts completely. There is some overlap between syrup season and mud season, much to the inconvenience of those who gather sap. Days in the upper 40s with nights in the mid to upper 20 are ideal, and conditions like that bring about snow melt with overnight freezing that often turns morning roads into skating rinks with deep mud forecast for the afternoon. But there isn’t much choice; if you don’t gather sap then, you won’t gather it. The first runs of the season, if cooked down quickly, produces a light, delicate syrup favored by some people. As the season progresses, the syrup produced becomes darker and heavier and more maple-y in flavor. If sap is gathered when the trees start to bud out, the resulting syrup is not very pleasant in taste.
There is a mistique and a romance about gathering maple sap, especially among those who have not done it. Those who do it commercially find the season to be exhausting and themselves to never feel warm and dry. The hours are long with the days devoted to gathering sap and the nights to boiling it down. Since most commercial producers also have regular jobs, sleep becomes only a pleasant memory of other seasons.
The first thing needed is a tap, or spile that is driven tightly into a hole bored for the purpose. There are size limits on trees to be tapped, and the Department of Agriculture has specific information on what will not damage the tree. Shallow taps are used for smaller trees, starting at about 10 inches in diameter and moving upwards. Larger trees can have two or more taps driven deeper. The largest trees can support 4 taps without damage. Each tap, ideally, can produce sap enough for about a quart of syup. Care should be taken in doing the tapping, especially when the same trees are to be used year after year. Again, the Extension Service of the Department of Agriculture has numerous informational bulletins on the subject.
Next, some method of collecting and transporting the sap is needed. In it’s most primitive guise, sap collection consisted simply of hanging a bucket from the spile. The next level is attaching a hose to the spile and setting the bucket below at the base of the tree. In these schemes a person generally comes around on a sled once a day and empties the buckets into a larger one on the sled. Horses were used to haul the sleds in operations of any size, but they have been replaced for the most part with snowmobiles.
The more efficient methods are to run hoses from the taps to a central collection point, sometimes even the sugar house itself. The hoses coming directly from the taps are small, perhaps half inch, and flexible. The larger hoses these feed can be firehose-sized and present a handling problem. This type of operation requires the assistance of gravity so some careful planning is necessary. For all operations, keeping equipment clean is a must. Cleaning can become quite a problem with larger scale collection systems.
There are a wide variety of methods for actually boiling down the sap, but all must do just that; boil it down. The sap is put into an evaporator and heated to a certain temperature. It can be all done in the same pan, or the final job can be done elsewhere, often on the kitchen stove in small family operations. The final temperature for maple syrup is several degrees above the boiling point of water. Remember, the boiling point increases with the density of the material. A hydrometer is also used to measure specific gravity of the liquid.
By tradition sap was boiled down over a wood fire in a sugar house that was generally at least partly open to the elements. Now much is cooked in electric evaporators indoors.
One way that it has been done in the area represented by the Penquis Virtual Nature Center is as follows: The sap is collected by bucket and poured into a special holding tank. It is generally boiled down every day to prevent the growth of bacteria. From the holding tank it is allowed to flow slowly into an multi-sectioned evaporating pan. As it flows slowly from entry up and down the various partitions, it is heated and condensed more and more. By the time it reaches a spicket at the end of the last partition, it is ready to be drawn off and taken elsewhere for finishing.
The syrup produced is graded according to USDA standards. At its most primitive, you can compare your syrup with color samples to determine its grade, but most syrup producers use more sophisticated equipment. The grades for the stuff you might put on your pancakes are all referred to as ‘amber’. Darker and heavier grades are used commerically for cooking and mixing.
Light amber comes from the first runs of the season and is light in color and body and delicate in taste. It has to be made quickly, because long boiling darkens the color.
Medium amber is a bit darker and heavier in body and taste. It has more maple flavor.
Dark amber is darker yet and heavier yet and has a very distinctly maple taste. There is even an extra dark grade that carries it a step farther.
So which is better? Depends on your individual tastes. One year I was going to give some of mine to an acquaintance and asked what grade he wanted. He said, “Light, of course.” OK. I actually prefer the medium myself, though when using it in recipes darker may be better. The person near the center who makes it commercially? He prefers the dark. I wouldn’t turn down any grade. At worst it is merely wonderful.
Other processes — including boiling down even more — can be used to make other maple products. Maple sugar is popular as is maple candy. Then we have maple cream, maple pepper, maple-walnut candy, and a variety of other products. Visit a Maine Maple producer, in Dover Foxcroft, near our center, to find out more about these products.
You can do more with maple syrup than just put it on pancakes. You can cook with it. My favorite ham glaze is made with maple syrup. When we were making syrup, my family enjoyed maple snow cones with fresh (and carefully selected) snow and fresh maple syrup. You can pour it over cold and make a fairly stiff concoction or warm and make a heavenly slush.
Every year a Sunday in March is designated as Maine Maple Sunday. Participating syrup producers open their doors to the public. If you plan a visit, bring your self restraint. It is very difficult to keep any of your money in your pocket when the fragrance of warm, fresh maple syrup surrounds you. Pay a visit to our and find out when the next one will be.
If you have questions or comments, email We will try to deal with questions and comments and will post them to the discussion board of the lecture room.