Pre-contact native peoples, living in the northeastern part of North America, were the first people known to have produced maple syrup and maple sugar. According to their oral traditions, as well as archaeological evidence, maple tree sap was being processed for its sugar content long before Europeans arrived in the region.
The Algonquins recognized the sap as a source of energy and nutrition. At the beginning of the spring thaw, they used stone tools to make V-shaped incisions in the trees, then inserted reeds or concave pieces of bark to run the sap into buckets, which were often made from birch bark. The maple sap, already rich in sugar content and yet not sweet-tasting, was concentrated either by dropping hot cooking stones into the buckets, or by leaving them exposed to the cold temperatures overnight, and disposing of the layer of ice which formed on top.
First Nations and Native Americans also used earthenware cooking pots to boil the maple sap. They heated it over simple fires protected only by a roof of tree branches.
Colonial to modern times
A 19th-century illustration, "Sugar-Making Among the Indians in the North" (note the use of metal containers, introduced as a result of European contact)
In the early stages of European colonization, in north-eastern North America, native peoples showed the arriving colonists how to tap (into) the trunks of certain types of maple tree during the end-of-winter/early-spring thaw, harvest the sap, and boil it to evaporate some of the water, concentrating the sugar content within the remaining liquid, and altering its taste somewhat, by heat-caramelizing some of the sugars. This activity quickly became an integral part of colonial life. Well before the beginning of the 1700s, European settlers and fur traders, as well as Native Americans, were intensively involved in the industry. During the 17th and 18th centuries, processed maple sap was a major source of concentrated sugar, in both liquid and crystallized-solid form. The Europeans revised the processing methods somewhat, with their access to more advanced technologies; particularly in metallurgy, toolmaking, and the use of domesticated animals. Typically, maple sugaring parties began to operate at the start of the spring thaw in regions of woodland known to contain sufficiently large numbers of maples, concentrated within a reasonable range of transportation to justify the effort. They first bored holes in the trunks of the maples, usually more than one hole per large tree, inserted home-made (usually carved wooden) spouts into the holes, and then hung a wooden bucket from the protruding end of each spout to collect the sap. The buckets were commonly made by cutting bucket-sized cylindrical segments from an appropriately large tree-trunk and then hollowing out each segment's core from one end of the cylinder, creating a seamless watertight container. Sap slowly filled the buckets, drop by drop. Periodically, members of the sugaring party returned to retrieve the sap that had accumulated. It was then either transferred to larger holding vessels ( barrels, large pots, or hollowed-out wooden logs) often mounted on sledges or wagons pulled by draft animals or it was carried in buckets, or similarly convenient containers. The sap-collection buckets were returned to the spouts mounted on the trees, and the process was repeated for as long as the flow of sap remained "sweet". The specific weather conditions of the late-winter/early-spring "thaw" period were, and still are, critical in determining the length of the "sugaring" season. As the weather continues to warm, a maple tree's normal early spring biological process eventually alters the taste of the sap, making it unpalatable. Depending on conditions, a sugaring party could spend several days to several weeks engaged in these activities. The boiling process was time consuming. The harvested sap was transported back to the party's base camp, where it was then poured into large, (almost always) metal vessels and boiled to achieve the desired consistency. The sap was usually processed at a central collection point, either over a fire built out in the open, or inside a shelter built for that purpose. To protect themselves from the weather conditions of the very early spring, sugaring parties built a small camp. Often, whole families moved into the woods together to collect and boil the sap producing both maple syrup and maple sugar.
By the 1850s, the "sugar shack" or "sugarhouse" (the outdoor shack or building used to boil down the sap) arrived as we know it today. The settlers had refined the methods for collecting the sap. The sap was transported using large barrels pulled by horses or oxen and brought to the sugar shack for processing. At this time, maple sugar was the only sugar available as other types of sugar were hard to find and expensive and was called "country sugar". Production methods have been streamlined since colonial days, yet remain basically the same. Sap must first be collected and boiled down carefully to obtain pure syrup without chemical agents or preservatives.
Early maple syrup was made by boiling approximately forty gallons (160 l) of sap over an open fire until one gallon (4 l) of syrup was obtained.
This process underwent little change over the first two hundred years of recorded maple syrup making. Around the time of the American Civil War, syrup makers started using a large flat sheet metal pan as it was more efficient for boiling than a heavy rounded iron kettle which let much of the heated air slide past.
Virtually all syrup makers in the past were self-sufficient dairy farmers who made both syrup and sugar for their own use and for extra income. The process continued to evolve as a result of the innovations developed in their work. In 1864, a Canadian borrowed some design ideas from sorghum evaporators and put a series of baffles in the flat pans to channel the boiling sap. In 1872 a Vermonter developed an evaporator with two pans and a metal arch or firebox which greatly decreased boiling time. Seventeen years later, in 1889, another Canadian bent the tin that formed the bottom of a pan into a series of flues which increased the heated surface area of the pan and again decreased boiling time.
The technology remained the same until the 1960s, when it was no longer a self sufficient enterprise with large families as farm hands. Because syrup making was so labor intensive, farmers could no longer afford to hire the large crews it took to gather all the buckets and haul the sap to the evaporator house. During the energy crunch of the 1970s, syrup makers responded with another surge of technological breakthroughs. Tubing systems, which had been experimented with since the early part of the century were perfected and the sap came directly from the tree to the evaporator house. Vacuum pumps were added to the tubing systems. Pre-heaters were developed to recycle heat lost in the steam. Reverse-osmosis machines were developed to take a portion of water out of the sap before it was boiled. Several producers even obtained surplus desalinization machines from the U.S. Navy and used them to take a portion of water out of the sap prior to boiling.
The technological developments continue. Improvements in tubing, new filtering techniques, "supercharged" preheaters, and better storage containers have been developed. Research continues on pest control and improved woodlot management. In 2009, the University of Vermont unveiled a new type of tap which prevents backflow of sap into the tree, reducing bacterial contamination and preventing the tree from attempting to heal the bore hole.
Maple syrup production is centered in northeastern North America, and is commonly associated with Quebec in Canada; however, given the correct weather conditions, it can be made wherever maple trees grow. Usually, the maple species used are the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and the black maple (Acer nigrum), because of a high sugar content in the sap of roughly two percent. A maple syrup production farm is called a "sugar bush" or "the sugarwoods". Sap is often boiled in a "sugar house" (also known as a "sugar shack" or cabane sucre), a building which is louvered at the top to vent the steam from the boiling sap.
Canada makes more than 80 percent of the world's maple syrup, producing about 26.5 million litres in 2005. The vast majority of this comes from Quebec: the province is by far the world's largest producer, with about 75 percent of the world production (24.66 million litres in 2005). Production in Quebec is controlled through a supply-management system, with producers receiving quota allotments from the Fdration des producteurs acricoles du Qubec. The province also maintains it own "strategic reserves" of maple syrup, which reached its highest point in 2004, when it totalled 60 million pounds, or 17.03 million litres.
The provinces of Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and British Columbia produce smaller amounts. The province of Manitoba produces maple syrup using the sap of the Manitoba maple tree (Acer negundo, also known as the "box-elder"). Manitoba maple syrup has a slightly different flavor than sugar-maple syrup; because it contains less sugar and the sap flows more slowly, the Manitoba maple tree's yield is usually less than half that of a similar-sized maple tree.
Vermont is the biggest U.S. producer, with 920 thousand US gallons (3,500,000 l) in 2009, followed by Maine with 395 thousand US gallons (1,500,000 l) and New York with 362 thousand US gallons (1,370,000 l). Wisconsin, Ohio, New Hampshire, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Connecticut all produced marketable quantities of maple syrup of less than 120 thousand US gallons (450,000 l) each in 2009.
Two taps in a maple tree, using plastic tubing for sap collection.
A small scale evaporation pan used in Ohio.
A sugar house where sap is boiled down to maple syrup.
Traditionally, maple syrup was harvested by tapping a maple tree through the bark and into the wood, then letting the sap run into a bucket, which required daily collecting; less labour-intensive methods such as the use of continuous plastic pipelines have since superseded this, in all but cottage-scale production.
Production is concentrated in February, March, and April, depending on local weather conditions. Freezing nights and warm days are needed to induce sap flows. The change in temperature from above to below freezing causes water uptake from the soil, and temperatures above freezing cause a stem pressure to develop, which, along with gravity, causes sap to flow out of tapholes or other wounds in the stem or branches. To collect the sap, holes are bored into the maple trees and tubes (taps, spouts, spiles) are inserted. Sap flows through the spouts into buckets or into plastic tubing. Modern use of plastic tubing with a partial vacuum has enabled increased production. A hole must be drilled in a new location each year, as the old hole will produce sap for only one season due to the natural healing process of the tree, called walling-off. Maple sap is collected from the buckets and taken to the sugar house; if plastic tubing and pipelines are used, then the pipelines are arranged so that the sap will flow by gravity into the sugar house, or if that is not possible, into holding tanks from which the sap is pumped or transported by tanker truck to the sugar house.
It takes approximately 40 litres (10 gal) of sap to be boiled down to 1 litre (1 quart) of syrup. A mature sugar maple produces about 40 litres of sap during the 4- to 6-week sugaring season. Trees are not tapped until they have a diameter of 25 cm (10 in) at chest-height and the tree is at least 40 years old. If the tree is more than 45 centimetres (18 in) it can be tapped twice on opposite sides. It is recommended that the drilled tap hole have a width of 8 mm ( in) and a depth of 25 to 40 mm (1.0 to 1.6 in). During cooking, the sap is fed automatically by pipe from a storage tank to a long and narrow ridged pan called the evaporator. The evaporator is usually divided into two sections, the front pan and the back pan. As the sap boils, the water evaporates; it becomes denser and sweeter. As the density of the sap increases, it works its way from the rear of the back evaporator pan to the front evaporator pan. The syrup is boiled until it reaches the correct density of maple syrup, 1333 kg/m3. The proper density of at least 66% sugar is reached when the boiling sap reached a temperature of 219 F (104 C). The density is tested with a hydrometer. If the density is too low the syrup will not be sweet enough and the syrup will spoil. If the density is too high the syrup will crystallize in bottles. When the syrup has reached the proper density, it is drawn off, filtered and bottled while hot.
Starting in the 1970s, some maple syrup producers started using reverse osmosis to remove water from sap before being further boiled down to syrup. The use of reverse osmosis allows approximately 75 to 80% of the water to be removed from the sap prior to boiling, reducing energy consumption and exposure of the syrup to high temperatures. Microbial contamination and degradation of the membranes has to be monitored.
Maple syrup is sometimes boiled down further to make maple sugar, a hard candy usually sold in pressed blocks, and maple taffy. Intermediate levels of boiling can also be used to create various intermediate products, including maple cream (less hard and granular than maple sugar) and maple butter (creamy, with a consistency slightly less thick than peanut butter). During the production season in New England, a traditional delicacy known as "sugar-on-snow" is often prepared by drizzling superheated maple syrup over snow or shaved ice, resulting in a chewy taffy-like confection.
Starting in the mid 80's, northern communities in the province of Quebec began to open the "Cabane Sucre" or Sugar Shacks to the public. These sugar shacks were generally located on large maple farms and often were built solely for tourist purposes. These sugar shacks serve maple syrup direct to the public and also are often restaurants serving maple syrup inspired meals and treats.
Canadian, U.S., and Vermont grading
U.S. Syrup grades. Left to right: Vermont Fancy, Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber, Grade B
In Canada, there are three grades containing several color classes, ranging from Canada #1, including Extra Light (sometimes known as AA), Light (A), and Medium (B); through #2, Amber (C); and finally #3 Dark (D). A typical year's yield will include about 2530% of each of the #1 colors, 10% Amber, and 2% Dark. Number 2 grade syrups are aimed at baking and flavouring but are also popular on pancakes and waffles. In addition, Canada #2 Amber may be labeled Ontario Amber for farm sales in that province only. Number 3 grade syrup is heavy, and restricted for use in commercial flavourings.
The United States uses somewhat different grading standards. Maple syrup is divided into two major grades: Grade A and Grade B. Grade A is further broken down into three subgrades: Light Amber (sometimes known as Fancy), Medium Amber, and Dark Amber. Grade B is darker than Grade A Dark Amber. The Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets uses a similar grading system of color and taste. The grade Vermont Fancy is similar in color and taste to U.S Grade A Light (Fancy). The Vermont grading system differs from the U.S. system in maintaining a slightly higher standard of product density. Vermont maple is boiled just a bit longer for a slightly thicker, denser product. The ratio of the volume of sap to the yielded volume of finished syrup is higher in the Vermont system. Maple syrup is sold by liquid volume, not weight. The Vermont graded product has one-half percent more solid material and less water in its composition. A non-table grade of syrup called commercial, or Grade C, is also produced. This is very dark, with a very strong flavor. Commercial maple syrup is generally used as a flavoring agent in other products.
The grades roughly correspond to various times within the season when syrups are produced. Canada #1 Extra Light and U.S. Grade A Light Amber are early-season grades, while Canada #2 and #3 and U.S. Grade B are late-season grades. Typically #1 Extra Light and Grade A (especially Grade A Light Amber) has a milder, more delicate flavor than #3 or Grade B, which is very dark with a robust flavor. The dark grades of syrup are primarily used for cooking and baking.
Sometimes off-flavours are found in maple syrup. While this is more common toward the end of the season in the production of commercial grade product, it may also be present early in the season during the production of Canada #1 grade or U.S. Grade A Light. Identification of off-flavour in table grades is cause for ceasing production and either dumping the product or reclassifying the product as commercial grade if the off-flavour is slight. Off-flavours are described as: metabolism, derived from metabolic changes in the tree as spring arrives and having either a woody, popcorn, or sometimes peanut butter-like flavour; buddy, referring to the swelling of the new buds and its impact on the flavour and having a bitter chocolate or burnt flavour; and ferment, an off-taste caused by fermentation and having a honey or fruity flavour, often accompanied by surface foam. Additionally, if trees are stressed or fighting off disease or insects (e.g. gypsy moths), they will produce a folic-like acid causing a bad taste. After an ice storm, trees may also produce the same acid.
Use in food and cultural significance
Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)
1,093 kJ (261 kcal)
Thiamine (Vit. B1)
0.006 mg (0%)
Riboflavin (Vit. B2)
0.01 mg (1%)
Niacin (Vit. B3)
0.03 mg (0%)
Pantothenic acid (B5)
0.036 mg (1%)
0.002 mg (0%)
Folate (Vit. B9)
0 g (0%)
0 mg (0%)
67 mg (7%)
1.20 mg (10%)
14 mg (4%)
2 mg (0%)
204 mg (4%)
4.16 mg (42%)
Percentages are relative to US recommendations for adults.
Source: USDA Nutrient database
Maple syrup and its artificial imitations are the preferred toppings for pancakes, waffles, and French toast in North America. Maple syrup can also be used for a variety of uses, including: biscuits, chicken, fresh donuts, fried dough, fritters, ice cream, hot cereal, and fresh fruit (especially grapefruit). It is also used as sweetener for applesauce, baked beans, candied sweet potatoes, winter squash, cakes, pies, breads, fudge and other candy, milkshakes, tea, coffee, and hot toddies.
Maple syrup and maple sugar were used during the American Civil War and by abolitionists in the years prior to the war because most cane sugar and molasses was produced by Southern slaves. During food rationing in World War II, people in the northeastern United States were encouraged to stretch their sugar rations by sweetening foods with maple syrup and maple sugar, and recipe books were printed to help housewives employ this alternate source.
In Quebec, New Brunswick, eastern Ontario, and New England, the process has become part of the culture. One tradition is going to sugar houses (cabanes sucre) in early spring for meals served with maple syrup. A typical offering is pancakes, baked beans and sausages, usually followed by a sugar on snow ("tire sur la neige" in Quebec), or sometimes by maple taffee in English Canada. Sugar on snow is thickened hot syrup poured onto fresh snow, and then eaten off sticks as it quickly cools. This thick maple syrup-based candy is occasionally served with yeast-risen doughnuts, sour dill pickles, and/or coffee.
Owing to the sugar maple tree's predominance in southeastern Canada (where Europeans settled in what was to become Canada), its leaf has come to symbolize the country, and is depicted on its flag. Several U.S. states, including New York and Vermont, have the sugar maple as their state tree. A scene of sap collection is depicted on the Vermont state quarter as well as the tins of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers' Association, a non-governmental agricultural organization that works to protect the integrity and purity of Vermont maple products, and to promote its historic significance to the culture of Vermont.
Imitation maple syrup
In the United States, "Maple syrup" must be made entirely from maple sap (small amounts of substances such as salt may be added). "Maple-flavored" syrups contain maple, but also other (cheaper) ingredients. "Pancake syrup", "waffle syrup", "table syrup", and similarly-named syrups are imitations, which are less expensive than real maple syrup. In these syrups, the primary ingredient is most often high fructose corn syrup flavored with sotolon, having no genuine maple content. They are usually thickened far beyond the viscosity of real maple syrup. U.S. labeling laws prohibit these products from having "maple" in their names.
The fenugreek seed, a spice, can be prepared to have a maple syrup-like flavor, and is used to make a very strong commercial flavoring that is similar to maple syrup, but much less expensive; Mapleine is an example of this. Smells from a Frutarom fenugreek processing factory produced a maple syrup-like odor that occasionally covered New York City starting in 2005, being identified in 2009 as coming from a Hudson County Frutarom factory.
Qubcois sometimes refer to imitation maple syrup as sirop de poteau ("pole syrup"), a joke referring to the syrup as having been made by tapping telephone poles.
In 1905, Crescent Foods Inc. created the imitation maple flavoring called Mapleine. Bought out by McCormick spices, it still distributes "Crescent Mapleine" from limited production runs.
In Australia and South Africa, imitation maple syrup is sold as "Maple flavoured syrup".
Identification of maple trees
Maple trees most commonly tapped for sap collection are Sugar Maple, Black Maple, Red Maple, and Silver Maple. These maple trees are common in Eastern Canada and the Northeast United States. The Sugar Maple and Black Maple provide the highest sugar content, and therefore are ideal for a better maple syrup yield and shorter boiling times. Quicker boiling often makes for a higher grade syrup. The bark on the Sugar Maple is dark gray to brown and has developed vertical grooves and ridges, often broken up by plates of bark. The leaf is rounded at the base, extending to generally 5 lobes without fine teeth (compared to Red and Silver Maples). The color is bright green, with a paler green underside. Sugar Maple fruit has seeds joined in a straight line, while the wings are separated by approximately 60 degrees. Each winged seed is about 1 inch (25 mm) long and matures in the fall.
^ Johnston, David (2009-03-01). "Producers fear consumers will sour on maple syrup". Montreal Gazette (Canwest). http://www.montrealgazette.com/Producers+fear+consumers+will+sour+maple+syrup/1334062/story.html. Retrieved 2009-03-01.
^ Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association
^ E.g., 21 CFR 168.140 (USA).
^ E.g., 21 CFR 168.180 (USA).
^ 21 CFR 168.140(a), 168.180(c).
^ MacInnis, Craig (July 6, 2008). "Not just for breakfast anymore". The Ottawa Citizen. http://www.canada.com/ottawacitizen/news/life/story.html?id=600c9b51-d198-4796-acfe-464b8cdb8fe3.
^ HistoryLink Essay: Crescent Manufacturing Company
^ Identification of Maple Trees
Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Maple syrup
Wikibooks Cookbook has a recipe/module on
The Canadian Encyclopedia: Maple Sugar Industry
Statistics by State (U.S. Department of Agriculture, June 2005).
Taste and nutrition:
Maple Sugar Sweetness Scale
"North American Maple Syrup Producers Manual" (1st edition), edited by Melvin R. Koelling and Randall B. Heiligmann, Ohio State University Extension (Bulletin 856), 1996. (archived at Internet Archive#Wayback Machine) "The Bible" of maple syrup production.
"Maple Syrup Quality Control Manual" by Kathryn Hopkins, University of Maine Cooperative Extension (Bulletin 7038)
Categories: Breakfast foods | Canadian cuisine | Food made from maple | New England cuisine | Quebec cuisine | Vermont cuisine | Syrup | Aboriginal cuisine in CanadaHidden categories: Articles needing additional references from January 2008 | All articles needing additional references | All articles with unsourced statements | Articles with unsourced statements from December 2008 | Articles with unsourced statements from June 2009 | Articles with unsourced statements from August 2009