Native Americans from United States and Canada where already boiling sap well before the Europeans came upon the land, from oral traditions and archaeological evidence, we know that they recognized maple sap as a source of energy and nutrition in both liquid and solid form. They mostly transformed the sugar sap into granulated sugar which was easier to store and to carry. The maple sugar was kept in birch bark boxes called mokuks.
Great video of how to make maple syrup the old fashioned way:
The maple trees
Maple specie used to collect the sap is sugar maple (acer saccharum) because of high sugar content (2%) in its sap. A few other species of maple trees such as black maple, red maple, silver maple and the ash leafed maple can be used but the sugar content is about half as low as the sugar maple.
Even though the maple trees are present in various region of the globe, it requires proper climatic conditions to produce sap in sufficient quantity to harvest. These conditions are found to the North-East of the United States in states such as Vermont, Maine, New York, Wisconsin, Ohio, New Hampshire, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut and in Canada exclusively. Maple syrup production is entirely a North-American product.
To give enough sap, a maple needs to be about 40 years old and 10 inches diameter at 54 inches from the ground. A tree with a diameter up to 17 inches should only be tap once. Trees between 18 and 24 inches can support 2 taps while a diameter of 25 inches and more can support 3 taps. It is important to drill tapholes when temperatures are above freezing to reduce the risk of injury to the tree. A 7/16 inch diameter drill should be used at a slight upward angle for 2 to 2 ½ inches and you should stay clear of the previous year taphole. For trees with more than one taphole, distribute them around the circumference of the tree. Avoid any wood backing up in the hole to prevent slowing the sap flow. Once the hole is drilled, install the tap by pushing it in the hole and secure it lightly with a hammer. Avoid being forceful as you could split the wood and cause severe damage to the tree.
In the old days, the sap was collected using a bucket emptied frequently during a good day. Since the mid-70 the sap has been collected using a tubing system with a vacuum pump. It is a more effective technique with less work required during sap season although you do have to maintain your tubing system during the off season. The collecting period is concentrated during the month of February, March and April depending on local weather condition and location. Freezing night and below freezing temperature during the day are required for a good flow of sap. This change in condition causes water to flow upward from the roots and the soil to the tree and through the taphole.
The volume of collected sap varies depending on the size of the tree, the temperature variation, the time of the year and the age of the tree.
Maple Syrup Production
For the best quality of maple syrup, the sap should be boiled the same day it is collected. Forty gallons of sap is required to produce a single gallon of maple syrup. This figure is a rule of thumb and can vary depending on sap sugar content. To speed up the boiling process and reduce its cost, a reverse-osmosis machine will remove up to 80% of the water. It also has the benefit of reducing the exposure of the syrup to unnecessary high temperature. The sap will be boiled up to 7 degree Fahrenheit above water’s boiling temperature (the water boiling temperature changes depending on your area and altitude but it is roughly 214 degrees). The maple syrup will be ready when its sugar density reaches at least 66% or 66Brix (Brix is the unit of measurement of sugar concentration, it is also used in winemaking). To measure the sugar density, you can use a hydrometer. Once the sap has been transformed into maple syrup, it should be hot filtered to remove any gritty material called sugar sand before packaging or storing. The last step before bottling is to grade the maple syrup. Visit our Maple Syrup Grading page to learn more about this process.
The maple syrup is warmed to 180 degrees Fahrenheit to make sure it is sterilized before packaging. Once the syrup as reached the correct temperature it is hot packaged in bottles, cans or bigger container such as jugs, pails and drums.