Spring is the season for maple syrup production. Personally, as a naturalist, I try to eat what is in season in my part of the country and support local farms, Community Supported Agricultures (CSAs), and farmers markets. I love maple syrup, maple sugar, and maple cream. I love it in my coffee latte, on pancakes, in yogurt, mixed with peanut butter, coated on walnuts, baked in granola, on ice cream, and in baked beans. You get the idea. Maple syrup is a great substitution for granulated sugar.

The color of maple syrup is determined by how early the sap is collected.

The color of maple syrup has nothing to do with the grade ( AA, A, or B) but rather for how early the sap is collected.  The earlier the sap is collected the lighter and sweeter it is, and more preferable — perfect on pancakes.  The later the season the darker the syrup becomes with a heavier taste in the maple flavor and the darker syrup is perfect for baking.

Maple syrup is a wonderful delicacy and to my amazement there are many who have never tried it.  Could it be due to the expense as compared to the other pancake syrups?  Once you taste maple syrup, it is hard to turn back to other sweeteners.

Maple Syrup Colors
The history of maple syrup is quite intriguing.  

Did you know that maple syrup is one of the oldest agricultural commodities produced in the U.S.?  There are several stories written regarding who first discovered the process of turning sap into syrup. Was it the Canadians or Native Indians?

According to a Cornell University blog, sugarcane was grown in Brazil and the West Indies around the year 1500. Sugar from the maple tree (Acer saccharum) was soon discovered. Among the colonists, one of the first references is dated 1664 when British officials mention sugar from trees in Massachusetts. A letter of 1684 enclosing some maple sugar from Canada, indicates that the Native Indians have practiced the art of maple sugaring longer than any living among them can remember.

Several prominent men in history were involved with maple sugaring. 

Benjamin Franklin encouraged massive sugar production in the Northeast to make the country less dependent on “foreign” sugar. Judge William Cooper (1754-1809), father of the journalist James Fenimore Cooper who held large acreage around Cooperstown, NY, bought maple sugar from the early settlers. Thomas Jefferson was an ardent advocate of large scale maple sugar manufacturing. He transplanted trees from New York State to establish a maple plantation on his Virginia Estate, Monticello in 1791.

For more information and the history of maple syrup production, visit the Maple Museum Centre located in Croghan, NY. Founded in 1977, the museum has preserved New York State’s maple legacy.  Although the museum is currently closed due to COVID 19, you can visit their website for a virtual tour.

The process for making maple syrup begins in winter.

In order for sugar maple trees to grow, they need snow.  Each winter, a deep blanket of snow, 8 inches deep or more, covers about 65 percent of northeastern sugar maples. Without this insulating snow, the soil freezes deeper and longer, damaging the trees’ shallow roots.

Maple trees accumulate starch in their roots and trunks, especially in the period that precedes winter. The long accumulation of this starch makes it easy to convert it from the original state to sugar.  Sugar Maples have the highest concentration of sugar, approximately 2.5 percent more than other types of maple trees.

The process begins in January when taps are installed in the maple trees. They are placed about four-and-a-half feet up from the ground in a tree that is 12 inches or greater in diameter; trees larger than 18 inches in diameter can accommodate two taps if placed correctly.

Large Tapped Maple Tree
Multi-tapped Maple Trees
Sap in Red Bucket
Close Up of Maple Tap
It takes about 43 gallons of sap from sugar maple trees to make one gallon of maple syrup.

At the end of February and early March before the trees bud, according to Cornell University, ”temperature fluctuations of warm days and freezing nights trigger a cycle of sap flow throughout the tree. Warm temperatures above freezing in Spring, pressure develops in the tree and causes the sap to flow out of these taps and then siphoned into buckets or lines. Then, with colder temperatures below freezing, suction within the tree pulls in more water to make more sap. When the fluctuations in temperature lessen, the sap stops flowing.”

Since the sap contains a high water ratio — 98 percent water and only 2 percent sugar, it has to undergo processing for the water to evaporate. Through a heating process, what is left behind is the final product of a thick concentrated syrup.

Experiencing maple syrup production first-hand is fascinating.

For personal use, my friends tapped, siphoned, collected, and cooked 60 gallons of sap from the maple trees in their backyard. The maple sap was cooked down in a 20-gallon container for a period of 8-10 hours until the evaporation process of water turned into an amber syrup.  In the final boil,  syrup was heated and filtered three times to remove concentrated minerals. The amount of syrup yielded was 1 ½ gallons. 

At a nearby university farm landscape, there are several Sugar and Red Maple trees.  Students from the food study and sustainability programs learn from authentic experience nearly the same processes as my friend only on a larger scale with more maple trees tapped and sap collected.

Several years ago in the middle of March while visiting family in Upstate New York, I was enlightened about the Maple Syrup Festival held in Thurman, NY. (The 2021 Festival has been cancelled due to COVID-19.) It’s a great opportunity to visit a couple of the maple farms ranging from 27-853 acres, producing maple syrup for generations and learning more about the process of producing syrup commercially.

The commercial processing of maple syrup is similar but slightly different from small production.

At the farm, trees are tapped, siphoned, and lines are run from tree to tree to an area where the collected sap is stored. The commercial processing of maple syrup begins by feeding it into an evaporator where it is heated to remove excess moisture. Like sauce bubbling in a pan on your stove, this removal of moisture concentrates the sugars. Once the maple syrup reaches a 66 percent to 67 percent sugar concentration, it is moved to a finishing pan, then cooled, filtered, graded, and bottled.

There are many health benefits from maple syrup.

One tablespoon of maple syrup provides over 30 percent of the daily value (DV) for manganese, a mineral that supports bone health, collagen production, and wound healing. Maple syrup also delivers smaller amounts of calcium, iron, potassium, and zinc. It has about 200 calories per 1/4 cup, zero cholesterol, and zero fat.

The overwhelming majority of maple syrup is produced from trees in the forests where no herbicides, pesticides, or preservatives have been applied. Therefore, most maple syrup would be considered organic.

Climate change threatens maple syrup production.

A study published in Global Change Biology warns that without snowpack, maple trees are projected to grow about 40 percent slower. As climate change reduces the amount of deep snow in New England, the study says this spells trouble for the trees as well as for humans.  It is the maple trees that enable us to make a living by producing syrup and also deplete a lot of carbon pollution.

“If temperatures keep increasing and the snowpack keeps shrinking, it suggests that our maple forests are going to not grow as much and therefore not sequester as much carbon,” says Pamela Templer, a biology professor at Boston University and senior author on the study.  Templer says as forests pull carbon dioxide out of the air and store it in trees, plants,and soil, they can offset somewhere between 5 to 30 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.

According to the Urban Forestry Network, in one growing season, one sugar maple along a roadway removes 60mg cadmium, 140mg chromium, 820mg nickel, and 5,200mg lead from the environment.

As the saying goes, “Blood is thicker than water, but maple syrup is thicker than blood. Therefore my loyalties lie with pancakes.”

Let’s go out and plant some more sugar maple trees!


OPL Naturalist Yvonne Dwyer

This experience was shared by OPL Naturalist Yvonne Dwyer.

Learn more about Yvonne.