April is the month for the highest maple syrup production in North America – and a time when many towns and villages in the Great Lakes states hold pancake breakfasts. The practice of tapping trees for syrup or sugar goes back centuries, long before European settlement. But as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Urycki reports, the methods used to make syrup have changed only a little with time and technology:
April is the month for the highest maple syrup production in North America – and a time when
many towns and villages in the Great Lakes States hold pancake breakfasts. The practice of
tapping trees for syrup or sugar goes back centuries, long before European settlement. But as the
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Urycki reports, the methods used to make syrup have
changed only a little with time and technology:
In a world where sugar is infused in almost every processed food we eat, it’s hard to imagine a
world without it. But before Europeans introduced honey bees to North America, most native
Americans could only turn to the trees. In a grove of sugar maples, called a sugar bush, Park
naturalist, Dan Best, illustrates the painstaking way Indians boiled down the sap without metal
utensils. It starts with pouring the gathered sap into a hollow log.
“I’m taking this fire-heated rock that’s absorbed a lot of heat from the fire and placing the sap
in the hollow log here. All day and all night for days at a time to get any quantity of sugar made.
Later, white settlers brought cast iron cauldrons. And a bigger improvement in maple sugar
production came with the invention of tin sheet metal. That allowed farmers to pound metal
tubes, or spiles, into the trees and then hang lightweight buckets.
“Tin buckets, like I say, have been used for since the 1860’s. Some places, smaller sugaring
operations, today still find it feasible to use buckets. It’s mounted on a hole under the rim of the
bucket right on the metal spile, so you can keep it, you pivot it right on the spile and empty it into
a gathering pail and today most people use 5-gallon plastic buckets for gathering pails.”
Doesn’t this harm the tree to some degree to be losing sap?
“Not really, if you tap according to the guidelines roughly speaking for every foot of diameter
that you have you can have a bucket. You have to have a good 12 to 18 inch tree to be able to put
on a single bucket. You get up 24 inches so you can put two buckets on and so on but these days
you don’t put any more than three buckets on the trees – too many stresses these days on maple
trees. Between air pollution and the drought we’re having, and so fourth, that we really look
closer. Today’s producers look very close at the health of individual trees.”
(sound of horse team)
Traditionally, the buckets were emptied into a large holding tank. Draft horses like these pulled
the tank on a sled through the forest to a sugar house. Viola Skinner remembers her parents using
“The tank that we had in our sugar bush had a rail on it and it was drawn by horses on a sled and
with the rail on it we could all jump up and hang on to the rail and go for a ride and we thought it
was fun and games. We didn’t realize we were working dumping into the gathering tank, so
that’s how we did it.”
Amish farmers are still using that method. Fourteen states from New England along the Great
Lakes to Minnesota and Canada produce maple syrup. A common method today is to run plastic
tubing from one tree to another. Sap usually runs by gravity down to a holding tank, saving work
and lessening erosion caused by driving on steep slopes. The tanks of sap are then boiled down
in a sugar house – 40 gallons of sap to get one gallon of syrup. Hans Geiss looks over one
evaporator, which, like most, are fired by wood.
“Probably about 85 to 90-percent are still wood fired.”
So what degree of sweetness do you want here?
“If you take it up from an average of 2 % sugar to about 67 % sugar.
What happens if you’re a little too sweet or a little under sweet?
“If you’re very much below 66% sugar the syrup won’t keep, it will ferment. If it’s much over
67% it will crystallize in the can; it’s like rock candy on the bottom. So you got to be pretty
much right on.”
Maple candy has been the specialty of Debbie Richards’ family. Her grandparents built a sugar
house in 1910 and it’s been the family’s only business ever since.
Richards buys syrup from area Amish farmers to make candy. The sap runs when daytime
temperatures rise above freezing and nighttime temperatures drop below.
Did you have a later season this year?
Yes, quite a bit later. The last three years the season has started earlier than usual. The season
most commonly starts between Valentine’s Day and President’s day. Wasn’t until March that
most people tapped.
Simply because the weather was so cold?
Are there fewer people doing this as maple forests get cut?
“I wouldn’t say there’s fewer people doing it, but the size of the operations are smaller. With
developments going in and roads being widened a lot of the sizes of the farms are being cut
Although the season started late, Richards says this was a good year, with the sap having a high
sugar content. Sweet news for the maple syrup industry.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mark Urycki.