It’s bright sunny days like we’ve had for most of this month that bring maple sugaring to mind. There’s just something about the quality of the light that says it’s sugar season. And sure enough, Wednesday morning I heard the first newscast from a sugar house. So, I thought I’d jump in with the best of ‘em and write a post about the sweetness of spring: maple syrup.
Maple sugaring and natural history go hand-in-hand. At least it has seemed that way to me, for most places where I have worked have operated some sort of sugaring operation. One ran a small scale commercial operation (see photo), but the majority were simple demonstration set-ups, where visitors walked a “sugaring trail”, each stop featuring a different time in the history of sugaring, from the Native hatchet in a tree with a wooden bowl on the ground to catch the dripping sap, to high tech tubing that brought the sap directly to the sugar shack.
My favorite, however, was the final stop on the sugaring trail we had in New Jersey. The guys on the staff built a device called a “lazy man’s balance”, consisting of a long arm (log) balanced across the fork of an upright log, with a kettle suspended from one end and a heavy rock tied to the other end to act as a counter-balance. The kettle was filled with sap and dangled above a fire, which boiled off the water. What made this set-up so fascinating to me, however, was the simplicity of the engineering: as the water evaporated, the kettle lost weight. As the kettle lost weight, it would rise a bit higher from the fire. This ingenious device would allow the syrup to condense without scorching.
One of the best things about visiting a sugar bush is getting to sample the merchandise, so to speak. While commercial outfits provide samples in hopes that you will buy some syrup or sugar to take home, nature centers have a different take on it: they just want you to try the stuff. The best sample tables not only give you a taste of maple syrup, but they also test your tasting skills. For example, one place where I worked had samples from sugar, red and Norway maples, Vermont Maid and Golden Griddle (the former has something like 3% real maple syrup, while the latter has none), and a syrup we made from potatoes. Visitors would spear a chunk of Italian bread on a toothpick and dip it into a cup of syrup to taste it. The goal was to pick out which was the real maple syrup. I grew up on the real stuff, so it always amazed me when people couldn’t pick out the real from the fake. And, just for the record, the potato syrup was often picked as the real McCoy.
Which brings us to sugar versus red versus Norway versus black maple. All maple trees produce a sweet sap that can be tapped and boiled to make a sweet golden syrup. So why the hoopla over sugar maple? Because sugar maple (Acer saccharum) has the greatest quantity of sugar per gallon of sap. In other words, you need a lot less sap from a sugar maple to produce a gallon of syrup than you would from a red, black, or Norway maple. And how much is that? The general rule of thumb is 40 gallons of sugar maple sap to produce one gallon of sugar maple syrup. For red maple, you need upwards of 80 gallons of sap to get that single gallon of syrup. On the other hand, red maples (Acer rubrum) are a lot more common across a larger portion of the US than sugar maples, so for many folks they are the tree of choice.
Sugar production doesn’t start and end with maple trees, however. If one travels to Alaska, or Siberia, one will find syrup produced from birch trees. Birch syrup has a different flavor, so don’t dump a bunch on your pancakes and expect it to taste the same. It is described as being a bit more spicy and reminiscent of sorghum or horehound candy. And if you think maple syrup is expensive, birch syrup is even more so. This is because it requires almost 100 gallons of sap to produce a single gallon of syrup, there aren’t many people producing it, and it is therefore considered a gourmet item.
March is the time to visit a sugar bush near you. And you might want to take in more than one, because each sugar operation may offer something a little different. Here in the 21st century you can see the whole spectrum of a sugaring operation from a sugar shack that’s deep in the woods and uses horses and sledges to haul the sap from the trees to the evaporators, to a high tech operation that uses a vacuum set-up to suck the sap out of the trees, and then applies reverse osmosis to remove water before the sap even sees the glint of an evaporator pan. A perusal of maple operations in the Adirondacks will turn up outfits at both ends of the scale. So get out your mud boots, grab a road map, and hit the woods – you won’t want to let this springtime tradition pass you by.