Maple Syrup Production
Maple syrup production is a unique and tasty spring tradition in the Great Lakes and Northeastern regions of the United States and Southeastern Canada. While the science of turning maple sap into syrup is simple, the process is time consuming and relies heavily on specific weather conditions.
Throughout the summer months, trees and other plants are using the green chlorophyll in their leaves to convert sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water into oxygen and sugar, a process called photosynthesis. The sugar mixes with water to create sap and flows through the inner layers of the tree, fueling the tree’s growth. When the leaves begin to change color in the fall, the sap flows into the roots and lower trunk of the tree, where it is stored for the winter. In the spring, warmer temperatures cause slight pressure changes in the inner layers of the trees, pulling the sap up from the roots to the branches to feed the developing leaf buds. This time in the early spring before the new leaves burst from their buds is when sap can be collected for syrup production.
Although all plants produce sap for their own food, not all sap can be turned into food for humans. Sugar maples, red maples, and silver maples all have a high enough sugar content in their sap, averaging 1% - 3%, that the sap tastes sweet when boiled. Other trees produce sap with a bitter taste or sap that is poisonous, such as the sumac tree. Identifying a maple tree is the first step to producing delicious syrup. Sugar maple leaves are the most recognizable type of maple leaf with their five lobes (sections of the leaf), smooth sides, and “U” shaped sinuses (the space between the lobes). Red maple tree leaves also have five lobes but with “V” shaped sinuses and ridged sides. Silver maple leaves are similar to a red maple with longer, narrower lobes. Leaf shape is the easiest way to identify a tree but other features can be used as well. Maple trees have an opposite branching pattern, bark that is rough on the lower portion of the tree but smooth towards the top, and dual winged “helicopter” seeds.
Preparation for the “first run” of sap begins in late January to early February, with spiles, buckets, sap lines, and evaporators being cleaned and maple syrup makers closely watching the weather reports for the perfect sap run conditions: below freezing over night with at least a twenty degree temperature increase to above freezing during the day. When favorable conditions appear in the extended forecast, it’s time to tap the maple trees. Tapping a maple tree requires slowly drilling a 1 – 2 inch deep hole into the sapwood layer of the tree. After any wood shavings are cleared from the hole, a metal or plastic spile is gently tapped into the hole using a hammer. Most maple producers can tell when the spile is at the correct depth by a change in the pitch of the hammer hitting the spile from a high pitched “ting” to a lower pitched “thunk”. After the spile is in the tree, a bucket can be hung or a tube attached to collect the sap.
Turning sap into syrup is as simple as removing water. However, since maple sap is 97 – 99% water, at least 40 gallons of sap must be collected to produce 1 gallon of maple syrup. Most large scale producers must collect hundreds of gallons of sap before beginning the evaporation process. After enough sap has been collected, it is poured into an evaporator, a multi-chambered pan on top of a large fire box. The sap is heated and maintained at boiling for several hours, allowing the water in the sap to turn to steam and evaporate out a chimney into the air. As the water evaporates, the sugar content and density of the sap increases, with fresh sap flowing into the back of the evaporator and pushing the denser liquid into the third section of the evaporator pan. When the liquid in the third chamber reaches 66% sugar content, it is officially maple syrup! Producers can then slowly begin to pour off the syrup for packaging, keeping an eye on the sugar content and temperature of the syrup.
Maple syrup production is a true labor of love for producers and Asbury Woods is proud to do our part to help preserve this tradition. There are several ways that you can enjoy the magic of maple production with us:
Interested in making maple syrup but don’t have any maple trees? No problem, rent one of ours! Each year, the Asbury Woods staff taps some of our best maple trees for our Rent-a-Bucket program. In addition to the sap collected in your assigned buckets, you’ll receive step by step instructions on maple syrup production from one of our educators. This program fills quickly each year, so be sure to watch our Program Registration page for your chance to join in.
Make Your Own Maple Syrup
Want to take your love of maple syrup to the next level? Our annual Basics of At-Home Maple Production program will teach you all of the information and skills you need to produce syrup from maple trees in your own backyard. Visit our Program Registration page to learn more.
Shop Maple Products
The Nature Center Gift Shop carries a variety of maple products year round from local producers. Purchase pure maple syrup for eating or gifting, enjoy the sweetness of maple candy, and discover maple based seasonings for your new favorite recipes.
Join the Maple Brigade
Looking for a fun volunteer opportunity and have a flexible schedule? Consider joining the Maple Brigade! Volunteers help with tree tapping, sap collection, and boiling during the Asbury Woods maple season. Opportunities both outdoors and in the Sugar Shack but due to the weather-based nature of sap runs, this is an “on-call” type project. Visit our volunteer website or contact Sheila Walmer to learn more.