Critical Thinking 14-Making Maple Syrup
Maple syrup producers association of Connecticut
How Do You Make Maple Syrup?
Preparation is critical. Months before the start of the short maple syrup season, the sugarmaker has been preparing for the upcoming spring season. Tasks such as cutting and splitting firewood for the sugarhouse and stringing and/or repairing the tubing in the sugarbush have taken place months before. A final cleaning, careful examination and even testing of equipment is the sugarmakers last task before the start of syrup season. Lack of good preparation often results in a poor season.
The sugar maple is the primary source for tapping. The most common tree the sugarmaker selects is the sugar maple, Acer saccharum. These trees grow in the northeast quadrant of the United States and around the Canadian Great Lakes. The maple trees the sugarmaker selects must be no smaller than 11 inches in diameter (about 40 years old) to be suitable for tapping.
Once the trees are tapped, it is up to the weather as to when the sap will flow. In late winter and spring sap is flowing up the tree every day but freezing nights and warm days are necessary for the maple tree to yield sap for the sugarmaker. During the day the sugarmaker may check to see if the weather has been favorable for the sap to flow out of the tree. It is when the buckets and sap tanks contain sap that it is time to collect the sap from every bucket and tank, and transport it back to the sugarhouse. The task of collecting sap can have its challenges. It can be difficult to collect sap in a fresh snowfall or when the melting snow turns the ground to mud. Cold temperatures can freeze pumps, valves, hoses, and couplings. To limit these obstacles some sugarhouses are built at the foot of the sugarbush so the tubing can bring the sap from the tree directly into the sugarhouse.
If necessary the sugarmaker will keep a hot fire burning late into the night, and in some cases around the clock to boil the sap until it is gone. No matter what is used, the process is the same. Evaporate off the water until the boiling point of the sap concentrate climbs to 7 ½ ° F above the temperature at which water boils, usually 212° F at sea level. The exact specific gravity may be measured with several devices, but to ensure proper density a combination of a thermometer and hydrometer are most often used. When the sap has become syrup, it is drawn-off the evaporator. Often producers choose to finish their syrup on a much smaller pan called a finishing pan. In addition to proper density, the syrup must be filtered, and the color graded before packaging.
Larger producers utilize high pressure filtration to remove a large percentage of water from the sap before it enters the evaporator with a process called reverse osmosis (RO). This process saves the sugarmaker both time and energy. Sap out of the tree averages 2% sugar. RO’s can produce a concentrate with upwards of 12% sugar, while reducing the volume of liquid by 70% or more. Boiling is still required to make maple syrup at 67% sugar.
The four grades of syrup are made by exactly the same process and contain the same amount of sugar. Maple syrup is graded from light to dark into four different classifications: Grade A Light Amber, Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber and Grade B. All four are high quality products made by exactly the same process and contain the same amount of sugar (66.5-67% per FDA definition). The difference in color and taste is determined by how long the sap needs to boil to become syrup (more sugar in the sap equals less boiling time) and the differences in the sap as the season progresses – e.g., the further along you are in the season, the more natural fermentation happens to the sugar in the sap before it enters the evaporator. These, among other factors, are what create the different flavor profiles of the four grades of syrup. Which one is “best” depends on individual taste preferences and how the syrup is used. The four classifications are:
Grade A Light Amber. This is the lightest in color and the most subtle in maple taste. It is usually used on or with foods that permit its subtle flavor to be appreciated.
Grade A Medium Amber. This is slightly darker than Light and has the characteristic maple flavor. It is the most popular for all around use.
Grade A Dark Amber.This is a dark amber color and has a heavier maple flavor than the lighter grades. Many people prefer this grade for table and all around use.
Grade B. This is the darkest grade of syrup sold at retail and has a robust maple flavor. Of the four grades, it has the most intense maple flavor. Many chefs prefer this grade for cooking.
By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM and Maps.com
Sugar maple are tapped in New England and 2013 may be a better year for the maple syrup industry after several declining years.
Maple syrup, that sweet sticky syrup that makes mere pancakes incredibly delicious, is threatened by warming trends in the Northeastern United States. Sugar maple farmers in New England declared the 2012 season too warm for optimal sap flow and have seen diminished production again this year. Especially dependent on the climate, the sugar maple tree needs freezing winter nights followed by warmer days to produce the sap used to make maple syrup.
The sugar maple is one of several sap-producing maples that occur in the mixed forests of the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada. Farmers cultivate the sugar maple, affectionately called “sugar-bush” by syrup producers, for its sap across the upper U.S. Midwest, Pennsylvania, New York and particularly New England.
The sugar maple is a hardy broad-leaf, deciduous tree, whose fall foliage turns the rural countryside into a kaleidoscope of yellows, oranges and reds. After the leaves fall, sugar maples go into a dormant period that lasts through the winter.
During subfreezing winter nights, maple trees concentrate their natural sugar, as sap chills in the trunks. Ideally, when sapping season begins in March, a sharp difference in nightly freezing and daily warming creates pressure inside the trees’ trunks, which begins the sap flow. Sugar collectors tap the trees’ trunks by drilling holes into them, allowing the sap to flow freely during the brief three- or four-week sapping season. If the weather is erratic, with days that are too warm or nights that are bitterly cold without protective snowfall, the run of sap will be reduced.
In the past, farmers tapped trees on their farms by inserting metal tubes and hanging buckets to catch the sap. Today, most commercial orchard taps are interconnected by a series of plastic tubes leading to a sugarhouse, eliminating the cold and difficult task of carrying buckets of sap through the snow. Maple syrup producers boil the sap in the sugarhouse to make maple syrup. It generally takes about 40 gallons (151 L) of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
The geographic trends in maple syrup production may hint as to how global warming is affecting the industry. In the 1950s, the United States produced 80 percent of the world’s maple syrup, with Canada producing the other 20 percent. Since the 1970s, however, Canada has more than tripled its maple syrup production, making it the current world leader. Canada now provides 80 percent of the world’s maple syrup, with Quebec alone producing more than two-thirds of the global supply.
Much of Canada’s syrup dominance has been perpetuated by generous farm subsidies from the Canadian government and the strong development of markets both in Canada and throughout the world. However, researchers now believe climate change is also playing a role. While rising temperatures and more erratic weather patterns have already affected New England’s maple syrup industry, they may eventually force maple syrup production to migrate farther north into Canada.
According to the Christian Science Monitor (April 6, 2005), a group of researchers at the University of New Hampshire forecasts that if climate change predictions are accurate, oak and hickory trees—not maples—will dominate New England forests by the end of the century. If temperatures rise 6 to 10 degrees F (2 to 4 degrees C) over the next century as predicted, sugar maples will be unable to compete with oaks and hickories.
A more immediate short-term affect, however, is the temperature-driven trend toward shorter sugaring seasons in New England, according to Dr. Timothy Perkins, director of the Proctor Maple Research Center at the University of Vermont. Perkins’ research shows that Canada is not experiencing the recent milder winter phenomena that have been exclusive to New England.
The period during which “sugaring” occurs has shortened substantially over the last four decades. As of 2007, the syrup-collecting period in New England and New York begins 8.2 days earlier and ends 11.4 days earlier than it did 40 years ago.
This year’s maple syrup production in the United States equaled 1.91 million gallons (7.2 million L), down 32 percent from 2011. This figure represents the lowest production since 2007. Vermont continues to lead the U.S. producers with 750,000 gallons (2.8 million L) in 2012, down 34 percent from its production in 2011.
Strangely, the first sap runs in New England began in January and February last year in 2012, catching producers unprepared. March brought a heat wave in the 70s and 80s F (16-21 C), which forced early budding of maple trees and quickly ended the maple syrup season. This year has been colder, prompting the first sap runs to be later and hopefully more productive.
If the warming trend and erratic weather persists during future sapping seasons, however, producers should expect a continued decline in traditional U.S. maple syrup production. We may still have maple syrup for our breakfast pancakes, but no longer will the label read, “Made in the U.S.A.”
And that is Geography in the News.
Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.
This article is an abbreviated and updated version of GITN #1168 published by Maps.com in Oct. 2012. Nearly 900 of the 1200, full-length weekly Geography in the News articles (with Spanish translations) are available in the K-12 online education resource Maps101.com, including maps and other supporting materials and critical thinking questions.