Making maple syrup is the most labor intensive way of obtaining calories known to man.
It’s also an excuse to get outside in the early spring and spend some time with the family in the sugar bush.
It takes forty liters of maple tree sap to produce one liter of finished maple syrup. With a 40:1 ratio, that means that maple sugar farmers have to collect thousands of gallons of maple sap, then boil off the excess water in an evaporator.
Maple sap runs in early spring – usually late February to early March. The sap runs heaviest when the nights are below freezing and the days are above freezing. A single maple tree can produce many liters of sap in a single day from a single tap.
A maple tree is tapped for maple syrup production by drilling a shallow hole into the trunk, then inserting a tap with a spout where the sap leaks out. Larger trees are tapped in multiple locations, but most trees in the sugar bush are only tapped once. In larger maple syrup operations, the sap is collected in plastic tubes directly from the maple tree taps, which drain to a central tank. Smaller maple syrup producers still use buckets – although modern buckets are usually food grade plastic not the more traditional steel.
Tapping a maple tree does not hurt the tree in any way.
Maple sap only runs for a few weeks every spring – with the majority of maple sap being collected usually during just a few days of high sap flow when the weather conditions are optimal. Maple syrup produced by maple tree sap collected early in the spring is usually lighter (referred to as light grade) and has a subtle maple flavor. Maple syrup produced by maple tree sap collected later in the season is usually heavier (referred to as amber) and has a stronger maple flavor.
Maple sugar producers usually mix light grade maple syrup with medium and amber grade maple syrup to produce a consistent medium grade (although maple syrup lovers usually prefer amber).
As you can imagine, it takes an enormous amount of energy to boil off forty liters of water for every liter of syrup produced. Most maple syrup makers use a specialty maple sap evaporator that is essentially a wood burning oven, optimized to heat and boil a flat tray of maple sap.
Maple syrup can be boiled further to thicken it and then poured over fresh snow to make maple toffee. If all the water is boiled off, the syrup will harden and crystallize into maple sugar.
The following sugar bush photos are from a family maple syrup sugar shack near Lion’s Head, Ontario, Canada.
All images from this session are available for royalty free licensing at Stocksy United.