History of Maple Syrup
The thought of maple starts a journey in the mind through sweet memories of the past. Whether the memory is of the beautiful golden amber color of syrup as the sun shines through the glass bottle in which it is contained, or of the delicate scent that swirls around your head in a cloud of steam emitted from a boiling pan. Perhaps it is the sticky kiss from a child placed on your cheek after finishing the best stack of pancakes they ever tasted, or the laughter enjoyed during that meal. The taste is certainly one beyond compare. Once you’ve sampled pure maple syrup, you will never forgive yourself for serving anything else. These wonderful reflections are all thanks to the accidental discovery of one of nature’s sweetest secrets.
Maple production in North America has a long history dating before recorded histories of the earliest European settlers. Its beginnings are credited to the earliest settlers, the Indian tribes of southeastern Canada and the northeastern United States, including the Micmac and Iroquois tribes. In 1540, the French explorer Jacques Cartier made note of the North American Maple. From the journals of explorers as early as 1606, descriptions of the collection and “distillation” of maple sap by the eastern Canadian Micmac Indians were being noted. Early New England explorers noted three forms of sugar the Indians produced from maple sap reduction: “Grain sugar”, a course granulated form similar to the modern brown sugar we use; “Cake sugar”, sugar poured into wooden molds which create cakes or blocks of hard sugar which is best for long term storage; and “Wax sugar”, a thick boiled syrup that is poured over snow to create what we call “sugar on snow” or “leather aprons”.
Maple sap was boiled beyond the point of syrup that we see today to a sugar form, which was much easier to store and trade. It was an important bartering tool for the Indians, and also an important form of income for the early colonists. Indians showed the colonists how to collect the sap from the trees, through a slashing of the bark, and then collecting the sap as it exuded from the wounds. It was discovered as early as 1790 the negative effects of this practice on the health of the tree, and primitive spiles were soon created and used.
Early sugar makers commonly used wooden buckets to gather sap and large iron kettles over open fires to reduce the sap to sugar. Over the next hundred years, many improvements were made to improve production. Metal buckets and storage containers replaced the wooden barrels and large flat pans took the place of the kettles during boiling. Containing a fire built under the flat pan created an “arch” or furnace causing more efficiency due to a larger surface area being exposed to the heat. Shelters soon were built for the boiling process and were given the “sugarhouse” title. Despite all of this, production was still slow and laborious.
Abolitionist groups promoted the use of maple sugar in opposition to the cane sugar production from slave labor in the British West Indies. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were very interested in the production of maple sugar as an alternative sugar source to cane sugar. Both had begun maple “orchards” on their homesteads in Virginia. Their efforts failed as most trees died or failed to thrive due to the climate. There are maple trees in New Hampshire that are still being tapped today that were used for production during the days of Washington’s presidency.
In 1880, the price of cane sugar and maple sugar were about the same, so New England producers had made their place in the market. In 1884, an evaporator pan had been patented, thus again easing the burden of production. The turn of the century found sugar makers able to buy evaporators, buckets and spouts. The import tax on cane sugar had been removed by then also, causing the market of maple sugar to fall drastically. A new market was created when sap was boiled down not to a dry sugar, but instead into a syrup of specific density. Sugar makers soon became syrup makers, and the liquid product was sold in cans.
Throughout the 20th century, maple producers have seen and benefitted from the advent of tubing for sap collection, first metal then plastic; improvements in spiles, which have benefitted the health of the trees; and the creation of Reverse-osmosis technology. R-O, as it has come to be known, is a process of concentrating the sugar content in sap by removing approximately 75% of the water before boiling. This allows the producer to spend less time boiling, and less fuel. Today’s evaporators are either wood-fired, oil-fired or LP gas-fired. Each producer has their favorite.
Visit with your local maple producer. Ask them to explain their own history and how their system works. Be sure to have a sample of fresh syrup. I promise you it will be another memory to add to your collection.