The art of making maple syrup is an ancient process dating back to the early natives of the Northeast and Canada. Before the Europeans, came these early peoples were making maple syrup in a way that is not so much different from the way it is made today.
According to archaeological evidence, stone axes were used to make a V shaped cut into a maple tree so that a piece of reed could be inserted into the hole. Sap ran through the reed into a bucket. These buckets were often made of birch bark. Hot stones were dropped into the buckets and the sap was boiled down right in the bucket. Sometimes it was boiled down in earthenware pots.
Today’s maple producers use braces or electric drills to drill a hole into the tree. A spile (or tap or spout) is inserted into the hole. Most of today’s spiles have a hook attached so that a bucket can be hung right from the tree.
Buckets today are usually stainless steel but the producer can use clean, plastic, gallon milk containers or plastic bags specially made for maple sap collection. Bigger producers use a series of hoses that run from tree to tree and then down into a larger hose called a mainline. The mainline usually leads to a storage container that’s either near the sugarhouse or close enough to move to the sugar house during sugaring time. What all of the collection systems have in common is that they are always closed or covered so that no debris can fall into the sap as it drains from the sugar maples.
The sugarhouse may be a wooden structure without electricity or a modern, brightly lit, syrup producing plant. What all sugarhouses have in common is a big vent at the top. The evaporation of maple sap creates lots of steam. The name “sugarhouse” comes from a time when most maple sap was made into maple sugar, rather than maple syrup.
The most important tool inside the sugarhouse is the evaporator. Most evaporators are heated with wood or oil and can evaporate from thirty-five to forty gallons of sap an hour. The evaporator is usually a shallow, metal pan that ranges from two feet wide and six feet long to six feet wide and twenty feet long. The sap is boiled, or evaporated, in the evaporator. Modern evaporators are divided into two partitions. The sap in the first is kept about an inch deep by a sensor that measures the depth of the liquid. As the sap boils down to the right consistency, it is drained into the second partition and more fresh sap flows into the first partition. During boiling a hydrometer (right) measures the exact amount of sugar in the sap. Alternately, a metal scoop might be placed in the boiling syrup. When the syrup clings to the bottom edge of the scoop in a sheet the producer can tell that the right consistency has been reached. When sap is 33% water and 67% sugar it has become syrup.
The syrup is then strained through woolen strainers to remove any foreign particles and to keep the syrup clean and clear.
Finally, the fresh, sweet maple syrup is poured into sterilized jars or bottles and the process is over – except for the best part. That, of course, would be the tasting!