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It's Time to Make Maple Syrup

 

Written by Dr. Robert Hansen, Phone: 570-265-2896, rsh7@psu.edu -Reprinted here with permission.

As winter loses its grip on Pennsylvania, warm days (40 degrees and above) followed by cold nights (30 degrees and cooler) signal the beginning of maple syrup season. When spring conditions are right, sap in sugar maples begins to flow and sugars made with last summer's sun move from their storage sites in the tree's stem. Mid-February to early March normally heralds the arrival of the "right" conditions and the season runs until, hopefully, early April.

Maple sugar products are truly North American. Native Americans were the first people to make maple sugar. We speculate they used hot stones and bark vessels to "boil" sap to concentrate the sugars. Early European likely appreciated this source of sugar, and, with the advantage of iron pots, they soon developed this seasonal industry and converted sap into sugar cakes or blocks, which were easier to store. Until tropical sugar sources became easily accessible, maple sugar was the ruling sweetener. As imported sugar became increasingly available, the maple industry switched to syrup production. Today, the maple industry produces a wide-range of quality products; however, syrup is the most common, best known and considered by many the ultimate natural product.

Many woodlot owners today look forward to the maple season as an important part of their family heritage. For some, it is a major cash crop. Among the state's diverse farm products it is unique, as it is produced, processed, and often sold entirely on the farm.

Quebec Province leads North America in maple syrup production. Vermont has successfully built an association with maple products; however, Pennsylvania is a major producer, generally ranking sixth or seventh in the United States. In 2009, Pennsylvania ranked seventh. Other maple states include Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Ohio, Wisconsin, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, West Virginia, Indiana, Iowa and Virginia.

Sugar maple is the species of choice for tapping to make maple sugar. Other maples such as black and red also yield sweet sap, but on average not as sweet as that flowing from sugar maple. Tapping done properly generally does little harm to the tree. Trees 10 to 18 inches in diameter (at 4 1/2 feet above the ground) receive one tap. Trees larger than 18 inches can have two. Tap holes are made by boring a 5/16 inch diameter hole at a slight upward angle into the tree to a depth of 1 1/2 to 2 inches. A hollow spout or spile is then gently tapped into the hole to fit snugly. Commercial maple producers collect sap in stainless steel buckets or weave a web of plastic tubing to connect trees and move sap to a common collection point. Small producers, working with only a few trees, can collect sap in clean plastic jugs (e.g., milk cartons) suspended from the spile.

Eventually sap is brought to the sugarhouse where an evaporator concentrates the sugar and turns the sap into the amber-colored syrup. After filtering to remove "sugar sand," mineral substances in sap concentrated in the boiling process, producers grade their product. Syrup grades depend on color (i.e., light, medium or dark amber) and flavor. Syrup by law has at least 66 percent sugar solids. The volume of sap needed to make a gallon of syrup varies with the concentration of sugar in the sap. Sap sugar content of sap varies from tree to tree, from less than 1 percent to rarely 10 percent. Normally, it is about 1.5 to 3 percent. Approximately 43 gallons of sap with a 2 percent sugar content yield one gallon of syrup.

Learn more about the maple syrup process by visiting a producer during the maple season. Look for steam rising from sugarhouses across the maple regions. Also consider visiting one of the state's many maple festivals to learn more about this sweet industry. See the Events page.

If you would like additional information on making maple syrup, visit the Pennsylvania Maple Syrup website at: http://maplesyrup.cas.psu.edu.

This article was brought to our attention through the The Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship Program.  They provide publications on a variety of topics related to woodland management for private landowners. For a list of free publications, call 1-800-235-WISE (toll-free), send e-mail to rnrext@psu.edu , or write to: Forest Stewardship Program, Forest Resources Extension, The Pennsylvania State University, 416 Forest Resources Building, University Park, PA 16802. The Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry and USDA Forest Service, in partnership with the Penn State's Forest Resources Extension, sponsor the Forest Stewardship Program in Pennsylvania.

 

 
 
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