A typical Vermont sugar house busily boiling down maple sap (notice sap bucket hanging in the foreground) to produce maple syrup.
Spring at the October Country Inn is just around the corner. Although night-time temperatures still drop to below freezing, the March sun has enough power to bring day-time temperatures into the 40s. The warm days cause the sap to rise in thousands of local Maple trees and signals the start of the maple sugaring season. The collection of maple sap and the production of maple syrup is a Vermont tradition that predates Vermont itself.
Legend has it that a local Indian chief threw his tomahawk into a maple tree trunk. The spring sun than warmed the tree and sap ran down the bark from the cut the tomahawk had made and into a container that happened to have been left under the tree. Thinking the crystal clear liquid in this container was water, the chief’s wife poured it in with some venison she was cooking. As the liquid boiled away a sticky sweet glaze formed on the meat adding a sweet maple flavor. Maple syrup was thus discovered.
Whether or not this is how local Indians discovered how to convert maple sap into maple sugar. They did figure this out somehow because the first European settlers to this region documented this use as well as adopting it. The settlers came with metal tools, drilled holes in the tree trunks, whittled wooden spouts and hung wooden buckets under the spouts to collect the sap. The sap was placed in iron kettles suspended over a roaring fire to evaporate the water out of the sap leaving only pure maple syrup. Although this process has evolved some over the years, it is also still essentially the same–sap is collected, placed in a metal container placed over a flame and boiled until only maple syrup remains.
Vermont is the largest producer of maple syrup in the United States. By Vermont law, the maple sap that is used to produce maple syrup must contain at least 66% sugar. Grades of Vermont maple syrup are divided into A and B, with A grades further subdivided into Fancy, Medium Amber, and Dark Amber. These grades refer to the color of the syrup, and the color is determined by when in the season the sap is harvested. Grade A Fancy is syrup from early season sap, and has a subtler flavor. Conversely, Grade B is syrup from late season sap, and has a more robust flavor.
Maples are usually tapped beginning at about 30 years of age. Each tree can support between one and four taps depending on its trunk diameter. The average tree will produce 9 to 13 gallons of sap per season, up to about 3 gallons a day. This is roughly equal to 7% of a tree’s total sap. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup. The sugaring season lasts from 4 to 8 weeks depending on the weather. During the day, starch stored in the roots for the winter rises through the trunk as sugary sap, allowing it to be tapped. Maples can continue to be tapped for sap until they are over 100 years old.
Of all the popular varieties of sweetener, maple syrup contains a wide array of various nutrients. Scientists have also found that maple syrup’s natural phenols, potentially beneficial antioxidant compounds, inhibit two carbohydrate-hydrolyzing enzymes that are relevant to type-2 diabetes. In the study, 34 new compounds were discovered in pure maple syrup, five of them have never before been seen in nature.