March is upon us. The days are getting longer and (marginally) warmer. With winter losing its grasp (grudgingly) on all of us, thoughts of spring start to occupy our minds. One of the harbingers of spring is maple sugaring. When we think of real, delicious maple syrup, we think of buckets hanging from trees and stacks of buttermilk pancakes, but what about the trees themselves? What’s going on in there?
Essentially, they’re yawning and stretching. The warmer days and cold nights of March wake the sugar maples from their winter dormancy, causing their tiny buds to swell with water. As if someone were sucking on a straw, this absorption of water in the extremities of the tree exerts a vacuum effect on its roots. Water and sugars are pulled up along the stem towards the embryonic leaves and branches to provide the nourishment needed for growth. “Sugarers” (those who harvest sap from the maples in order to make syrup) are after this solution traveling up from the roots, and they intercept it as it makes its way towards the branches. Most of the solution they extract is water (in fact, it’s approximately 98% H2O), while sugars and enzymes comprise the other 2%.
Next question: how exactly do these bucket-wielding angels of the breakfast table make the conversion between a stand of sugar maples and a bottle of syrup? Obtaining maple syrup from the trees is a time- and labor-consuming process.
First, the trees must be tapped. Using a cordless drill or a traditional hand auger, the sugarers bore angled holes in the tree trunks into which they then insert taps of either metal or wood (the latter being the more traditional material). From these taps they hang lidded buckets.
A sugarer must make a different hole or different holes in a specific tree every year. Once a tree has been tapped at a certain spot, scar tissue builds up around the wound and creates an obstacle to tapping. Numerous holes may be tapped in an individual tree during a harvest; of course, the trunk’s circumference plays a role in determining the number of taps a tree can support without jeopardizing its health. In general, though, tapping the trees does not introduce disease or reduce their foilage. Though the wounds do leave the tree more open to pathogens or insect infestation, usually the temperatures are low enough to limit the activity of such little critters. The wounds callous over when the harvesting season has ended – before temperatures rise significantly. Plus, the solution tapped out of the tree is so miniscule in comparison to the amount the tree uses to support its growth that the tree hardly misses the stolen nutrients.
Once sap collection is complete, the sugarers consolidate their harvest in long, shallow pans whose high surface-area to volume ratios allow for rapid evaporation. The sap is then cooked slowly over a woodfire in an open structure. Usually sugar maple supplies the firewood; some folks theorize that the smoke from sugar brush enhances the flavor of the syrup. There is good reason for cooking the sap outdoors, too: fifty gallons of sap simmer down to produce only one gallon of syrup. That means a whole lot of steam is mingling with the fragrant smoke of those crackling sugar maples!
Laboratories cannot simulate the process of harvesting and cooking up maple syrup with great success. Throwing the “necessary elements” in a beaker (or, for that matter, on the kitchen stove) and trying to “make like the sugar maples” without involving the actual trees only produces sad imitations of the real deal. Those sad imitations frequently find themselves atop many-a stack of pancakes, waffles, or french toast, but only because of their comparatively low pricetag. The price of genuine maple syrup reflects the hard work that goes into its production.
Another question that often arises in those frequent watercooler discussions about maple syrup is why you don’t see hickory or birch syrup on the market. Sugarers can use other such trees, but the lower concentrations of sugar in their sap means even more work for less syrup. Some trees like oak and pine actually produce chemicals that lead to some bad-tasting syrup. Ever thought of smearing pine sap on your breakfast? Didn’t think so.