Late winter is maple syrup time! One of my favorite signs of spring is seeing sap buckets hanging on maple trees around our small town of Dublin, New Hampshire. The buckets are everywhere—at the local school, in neighbors’ woods, and along the road.
Sugar’s sweet, but sap is sappier;
Cold nights make the farmers happier!
–The Old Farmer’s Almanac, 1989
When I drive by one of our local sugarhouses, Morning Star Maple, and see steam billowing, I know that they’re boiling the sap. I quickly pull over and walk in for a free tasting of this liquid gold. Last week, I stopped by for a new jug of syrup and chatted with the owner, Karen.
When are Maple Trees Tapped?
Maple trees are tapped when temperatures alternate between freezing and thawing. Nighttime temperatures must drop below freezing (in the 20s), and daytime temperatures must reach 40 to 50 degrees. Before winter, the maple trees store starch in their trunks and roots, which gets converted into sugar. As spring nears, the sap thaws and the sugar in the sap rises up the tree.
You need cold nights to make “sugarers” happy, so unseasonably warm winters isn’t good for the harvest. What happens when it’s not the right temperatures? Karen shrugged in a no-nonsense way and said, “Some seasons are good, some aren’t.” Agriculture’s not for wimps! She’s clearly been in the maple syrup business a long time and weathered the ups and downs.
How Do You Tap a Tree?
Do all trees produce sap? Karen says that they do, but “it’s the sugar maple that has the highest content of sugar in the sap.” They’ll tap some red maples, too.
There are many ways to tap trees to allow the sap to run out freely. Here’s the most basic way:
• Drill 2 to 3 inches into the south side of the tree at a convenient height, making a hole ⅜- to ⅝-inch in diameter (larger holes for larger trees). The hole should slant upward slightly.
• Then drive a metal sap spigot (available at hardware stores) into the hole, stopping short of the full distance of the hole.
• Hang a bucket on the spigot to collect the sap. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup.
• The sap is clear and almost tasteless—and very low in sugar content. Boil the sap to evaporate the water, producing a liquid with the characteristic flavor and color of maple syrup and a sugar content of 60 percent.
Maple Syrup Health Benefits
Native Americans used maple syrup both as a food and as a medicine—and taught the age-old process of sugaring to the colonists.
Maple syrup contains fewer calories and a higher concentration of minerals than honey. It’s an excellent source of manganese and a good source of zinc, which sweetens your antioxidant defenses, your heart, and your immune system. It may even have special benefits for men’s reproductive health. Learn more about maple syrup’s health benefits.
Real Maple Syrup Taste
Now, if you’ve never tasted “real” maple syrup, there’s no way to describe its unique flavor and pure goodness. It’s a natural wonder of the world!
The “syrup” that I grew up with was filled with corn syrup and artificial “maple” flavor. Whether you like it or not (and I did at the time), it has never met a tree.
Pure maple syrup has an earthy, naturally sweet taste and a more viscous quality than maple-flavor syrup. I guess I’d say that it’s as different as store-bought apple juice is to fresh-pressed apple juice.
At our local sugarhouses, they sell Grade A and Grade B.
- Grade A comes in light, medium, and dark amber. If you’re not used to pure maple syrup, you’ll want to go with Grade A light. This is what I buy for friends. (Maple syrup is my go-to gift for out-of-town hostess gifts and holiday-time gifts.)
- My husband, however, loves Grade B. It’s much richer, bolder, and thicker. Many people just use it for cooking, but he just loves the strong stuff on his pancakes.
Of course, maple syrup is great for more than pancakes. See some of the Almanac’s best maple syrup recipes. If you have other ideas for enjoying maple syrup, please share!