Making Maple Syrup in the 21st Century

Reader Contribution by Toby Grotz
1 / 12
2 / 12
3 / 12
4 / 12
5 / 12
6 / 12
7 / 12
8 / 12
9 / 12
10 / 12
11 / 12
12 / 12
article image

In late February and early March, denizens of the Driftless moved through the woods, from tree to tree preparing for another harvest of sap from the maples nestled in the couleesof the western Wisconsin.  It has become a tradition for maple syrup producers to host maple syrup parties and open houses when the sap starts to run, so we headed out into the wintery weather to join in the fun.  Kickapoo Gold tours begin with a pancake breakfast followed by a horse drawn sleighride to the sugar shack.

We quickly found that making maple syrup is not done like it used to be done.  Used to be that buckets were hung on trees to collect the sap and they were carried to a wood fired evaporator.  Third generation sugar maker Phil Gudgeon of Kickapoo Gold provided the following photo of the way it was when the sap was cooked down out in the open over a wood fire. The term sugar maker dates back to the days when some or most of the sap was cooked down to make sugar.  Maple sugar.

The art of making maple syrup was known by the original inhabitants of North America.  Immigrants who arrived from Europe soon learned the ways of the maple trees and how and when to harvest the sap for a much cheaper source of sugar than was available at the time.  For a brief history with speculation on how sap harvesting began see here.

On days when the temperature is around 40 degrees following a night when the mercury drops below freezing the sap starts flowing allowing for collection. It takes 40 – 60 gallons of sap to make a gallon of maple syrup.  The sap is about as clear as water when it comes out of the trees and it has a taste that almost reminds you of what it will become.  There is a barely detectable wisp of maple flavor in the pure sap.  The sugar content of the sap is about 2%.  When the sap has been boiled down so that the sugar content is between 66% and 68%, it is officially maple syrup.  At BandE’s Trees they aim for a sugar content of 66.7%.  Measuring the sugar content is easy to do and a hydrometer calibrated to the Brix scale is used.

Traditionally maple syrup was collected by hanging buckets on a tree that had been tapped with hand carved spouts.  A small hole is drilled in the tree and a spigot or tap was hammered in allowing the sap to leak out of the tree into the bucket.  The amount of sap being collected is minimal compared to the overall flow and three hundred years of observation indicate that this practice does not harm the trees.  Tapping is shown below. 

Third generation sugar maker Phil Gudgeon conveyed to us that there is still a lot of bad information in the literature and on the web about drilling for taps.  The holes in the tree must be horizontal and not drilled at an angle.  Phil told us that back in the day, taps were made from sumac (see here) and the center hole was reamed with a #9 wire. The holes are moved each year to the left or right of last years hole in the tree.  The holes are self-sealing and do not harm the tree.  If you think about it, trees are well equipped to handle violent storms, loss of branches, and survive for hundreds of years, so the tapping is minor issue for the tree. 

Tapping up to 4,000 trees on a hillside of 80 or so acres requires miles of collection line.  Once the tree pushes the sap into the line it runs downhill to a collection tank and from there it is pumped back up the hill with an elevation change of 350 feet or more to the sugar shack. The small lines in the picture below run downhill to the collection tank and the larger line is connected from the pump at the bottom of the hill to the sugar shack where it enters another tank for storage before being routed to the evaporator.

Before going to the evaporator, maple syrup production today makes use of reverse osmosis (RO) technology to improve the efficiency of maple syrup production.  RO separates the water from the sap.  This is the same technology that can fit under a kitchen sink to purify water but these systems take up a room as shown below at Cecil Wright’s sugar shack. 

The water from the RO process is stored and used to wash down the piping and equipment at the end of a processing run.  The sap minus the water is then moved to an evaporator.  At the B&E’s Trees open house, Bree Brickle explained how the evaporator drives off more water until the sugar content reaches 66.7%.  The evaporator has been upgraded from a pan over a wood fire out in the woods to a major piece of equipment in a sugar shack out in the woods.  The evaporator temperature must be precisely controlled.  The energy input in the form of fuel oil or propane must be modulated as the ambient temperature changes during the day and the local barometric temperature changes. The boiling point of water can vary up to 3 degrees with changes in barometric pressure.  These changes require constant monitoring and adjustments to the process.  Sugar runs can keep sappers busy to 3 AM in the morning and the season can last as long as two months to as short as nine days all depending on the weather.

Once the syrup has been boiled down to a consistency and sugar content suitable for bottling, it is passed through a filter.  In the photo below, Phil Gudgeon of Kickapoo Gold explains the process to students from the University of Wisconsin Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems(CIAS) 

 A high pressure filter is in the lower right side of the photo and prepares the syrup for bottling.

A Maple Syrup Co-Op

In 2007, Cecil Wrighrt co-founded the Maple Valley Cooperative to help support maple farmers and secure a market. You can find their maple syrup in 462 locations produced by 18 farmer members of the Cooperative by clicking on their logo below.

Best Maple Syrup You Will Ever Taste

If you can get it, when you are on a tour of maple syrup production, or you make it yourself, the syrup coming off the evaporator, before being filtered for bottling, will knock your socks off.  There is a noticeable taste of woodland essence that you will not find in store bought maple syrup.  In the next photo Cecil is sampling the brew before it hits the filter.

Aged for a Year

Does maple syrup get better the older it gets?  If it’s aged in bourbon barrels it does.  Bree and Eric of B&E’s Trees describe their product as rich, complex, and incredibly delicious.  This is a niche market and unique in that they age their maple syrup for a year & then return the barrels to the Central Waters Brewing Company which in turn ages beer in the maple soaked bourbon barrels. 

Maple Syrup Nutrition

Maple syrup is high in minerals and antioxidants and has a high ORAC value (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) Here’s the data.  In the alternative health field, maple syrup is a key ingredient in the Stanley Burroughs Master Cleanse for Detoxand consists of the following:

2 tbsp organic lemon or lime juice
2 tbsp organic maple syrup
1/10 tsp cayenne pepper
8 oz spring or purified water

Drink 6 to 12 glasses per day.

Maple Syrup and Climate Change

Maple Syrup production is affected by changing climate.  The winters are getting warmer and shorter.  Anyone who disputes that the climate is changing only needs to look at the maps of the USDA plant hardiness zones here. It is easy to see that the zones are shifting north up to 100 miles every ten years. For a review of the science of climate change, please see my previous comments here, here, and here.   During the tours I asked about how climate change would affect maple syrup production.  Sappers, as I call them, say that it just moves the beginning of the season closer to the start of the new year.  They may be out in the woods in January rather than in March.   As I left woods, in other parts of the world, outside the forests, those who would save them, shut down cities in attempts to slow climate change.  It occurred to me, that it is the job of the old, to post bail for the young.


Maple Sugaring Basics  From Mother Earth News, September, 2015.

The Master Cleanse

Stanley Burroughs, The Master Cleanser, 1976. 

Toby Grotz is an electrical engineer who has been involved on both sides of the energy equation: exploring for oil and gas and geothermal resources and in the utility industry working in coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants. He has been a community garden advocate and organizer ever since. Recent projects include lecturing for the Food Not Lawns classes sponsored by the University of Missouri, Kansas City Communiversity. He is a member of the Sierra Club and past officer of the Kanza Group. Read all of Toby’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.