How To: The Process to Make Maple Syrup
Here at UnTapped we spend a lot of time talking about simple ingredients and all natural energy. Simple, natural products are taste great and make you feel better while being a little more environmentally friendly to boot. Nothing underscores that like the cornerstone of our products - pure maple syrup. Should you be from New England, northeastern Canada or the upper midwest, it’s possible, if not likely, that you’ve been around maple syrup. Real maple syrup.
However, due to the efforts of “big corn syrup” you could be forgiven for thinking that maple syrup came in a log cabin branded bottle with a mix of colors and flavors. (We once received an earnest request for the ingredient list in our original UnTapped packet: “but what’s in maple syrup?”)
Hence, we present a tour of the maple process in the busiest time of year - sugaring season. (profiled in depth in this 2013 New York Times article)
Sugaring starts with tapping. With over 22,000 small holes to drill in the maple trees that surround the ski slopes, it takes weeks to prepare the taps every spring. A single person can tap about 400 to 500 trees per day and so the four-person UnTapped crew takes two to three weeks to make it happen. Exactly when to tap is a trick. Tap too early and the trees heal themselves, isolating and healing the wood around the tap hole, restricting the amount of sap that flows into the system. Tap too late and you risk missing precious warm spring days when the sap flows. There are about 100 species of maple trees, but only four produce enough sugar to be worth tapping and one, the sugar maple, produces most of the sap that becomes syrup.
Walking / Repairing the Lines
Gone are the days of galvanized buckets quaintly capturing sap in postcard-ready states of patient collection. Translucent polyethylene is strung from tree to tree in a vein-like pattern descending through joints called saddles to the repurposed milk tanker trucks just outside the post-and-beam sugar shack. Vacuum pumps are connected to the system, and lines are checked and rechecked to ensure there are no leaks. Finally, the sap is run through a Reverse Osmosis machine, removing water and boosting the sugar content from two to 15 percent. Finally it is ready for boiling.
The sweetest and most photogenic step in the sugaring process is boiling. The sap is pumped into the large stainless evaporator and boiled to 220 degrees F when the sugar content is around 67% sugar (Vermont law sets the Brix of pure maple syrup between 66.9 and 67.5). Too far above 67% and sugar crystals form in the containers. Below 67% and the syrup risks souring while in storage. After it is drawn off, the syrup is filtered and packaged in steel drums for storage and bottling as needed over the summer.
In a good year, the freeze / thaw cycle of spring will bring six weeks of sap "runs" generating anywhere from a third to, in some cases, over half a gallon of syrup per tap. While improvements in technology have improved yields over the last decades, climate change and less predictable winters and springs present challenges and threaten forest health.
When the buds start to show and temperatures no longer dip to freezing at night, the flavor changes and the sap flow stops. The tired crew cleans the equipment and removes the taps from the trees, allowing a regenerative year before the process kicks off again.