Coming from England, we had rarely tasted maple syrup & knew nothing of how it was harvested, so we were keen to learn more about this Canadian delicacy. Every year since arriving in Bear River we have tapped the lofty sugar maples that line our driveway, and each year discover a little more of the traditions that surround the sweet golden liquid.
The maple tree takes about 40 years to reach 12 inches in diameter at chest height. At this point, it is suitable for tapping which usually begins around the beginning of March when we start to experience freezing nights and warm sunny days. In the fall, the tree produces its own supply of starch to act as an anti-freeze for the roots in winter, in spring the alternating freezing & thawing temperatures alters the pressure inside the tree and begins the circulation of ‘sugar water’ through the tree in preparation for the growing season. The harvesting season ends when conditions are right for the formation of buds on the tree. By tapping the tree it is possible to divert the rising sap into buckets and in a good year, it is possible to harvest ten gallons of sap per season from each tap without doing any damage to the tree. Maple sap is thin, barely sweet and is as colorless as spring water. The distinctive maple taste and iconic amber colour come only after the evaporation of the water by boiling the sap to a temperature of 104 degrees Celsius. It takes 40 litres of sap to make 1 litre of finished syrup. First-grade syrup comes from the earliest flow of sap and is lighter coloured with a mild flavour, this is followed by the second grade of syrup which is darker in colour and has a rich maple flavour.
We boil the sap outdoors using an evaporator that we built using an old top loading washing machine. Once it reaches a certain point we filter it and finish it in the kitchen on the cookstove, using a thermometer for an accurate temperature reading.
For me, the maple season signals the end of winter, giving us our first harvest of the year. Most years, after a week of boiling sap, sometimes working into the evening, we finish with approx. 18 litres of syrup which is more than we shall use, so if anyone would like to try some I have a few jars for sale.
Since this post was originally written, John has built a ‘new, improved’ evaporator using a metal barrel. With a closed firebox and the addition of a chimney, the sap boils down quicker and the syrup is much cleaner and easier to filter.