Maple Syrup Primer

Numbers and other fun facts about nature’s candy.

By Richard Banks | Photos By Jamie Cole and Toby Talbot

VIDEO: Twice the Tractor: A Visit with Mark Colburn

Maple 101

Syrup that’s bottled and ready to go.

Syrup that’s bottled and ready to go.

There are five varieties of maple trees that are most commonly used for maple production: four—the red, sugar, black and silver—are found mainly in the eastern U.S. and southeastern Canada; while one—the big leaf—is found mostly in the Pacific coastal regions of the U.S. and Canada.

The leaf of the red maple is featured on the flag of Canada.

Sap straight from the tree can range from 2 to 10% sugar. Finished maple syrup ranges between 66 and 66.9% sugar.

It takes 40 gallons of sap at 2% sugar to make one gallon of maple syrup. The range for most producers, depending on the sweetness of their sap, is 30 to 50 gallons of sap to 1 gallon of syrup.

The average sugaring season—the period during which sap runs—lasts about 30 days, and can begin as early as January and end as late as April.

For sugaring to occur, low temperatures need to drop between 20-25-degrees (F), while highs need to reach between 40-50-degrees.

Production Numbers

For Vermont producers, as well as others in the east, 2012 was one of the worst years for maple production since 1946. Proving once again the fickle nature of, well, Mother Nature, 2013 was one of the best years.

In an average year, Mark Colburn of Colburn’s Village View Maples says he produces approx. 8,500 gallons of syrup. In 2012, that total dropped to 4,200 gallons, while 2013 bounced back up to 8,300.

Quebec alone produces some 80% of the world’s maple syrup. Vermont, which is the second-most productive syrup-producing region, produces about 5.5%.

In Canada, the number of gallons produced increased by 53% between 2008 and 2012. U.S. farmers produced 3.25 million gallons this year, an increase of 70% since 2008.

As many as 10.6 million taps were in place in 2013 in the U.S., compared with slightly more than 6.8 million taps 10 years earlier.

In 2012, the average wholesale price of a gallon of syrup went for $39.10 in the U.S., an increase of 28% from a decade earlier. That’s a record-high price and approximately 11 times the price of crude oil last year.

New Technologies

The traditional method of capturing sap involved a spile tap that routed sap into a bucket. In most operations today, tubes hooked up to a powerful vacuum pump suck the sap from a tree and into tanks at the facility—called a sugarhouse—where the sap is concentrated and made into syrup.

The Colburns use 250 miles of vacuum tubes to collect sap from a 160-acre “sugar bush” that includes 20,000 taps.

Approxmately 90% of the maple syrup produced today is run through a production system that uses reverse osmosis [R/O]. R/O machines purify a liquid, in this case sap, by running that liquid through a semi-permeable membrane and separating water from water-soluble solids. Use of an R/O further concentrates the sap from its natural state to about 15% sugar, thereby reducing the need to boil that sap in later stages of production by as much as half.

The cost of an R/O can run as low as $5,000 and as high as $50,000 or more. Capacity of the R/O is one of the main factors in cost.

Can Tapping Harm Trees?

Not if done correctly, according to Dr. Timothy Perkins, director of the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center.

“Well, there are two ways in which you can harm trees,” he says.

“One is whenever you drill a hole in the tree, it creates this wound, and the wound is a lot larger than the visible hole. So there’s this area within the tree both above and below the tap hole that becomes non-conductive to liquid any longer. If you put too many holes in the tree so that it compromises the ability of the tree to move liquid, then it’s going to impair the [tree’s] physiological function. That’s pretty unusual, pretty hard to do, except for very small trees.

“The second way is if you take out too much of the sugars, the resource the tree is using for its own growth and metabolism. Then, it could also affect the growth and that really doesn’t seem to be too much of an issue. For the most part, it doesn’t appear that we can pull out enough sugar through tapping to really impair the growth of the tree.”

Vacuum v. Traditional

Which is better for the tree: harvesting sap via modern vacuum-based methods or traditional spile taps and buckets?

Perkins, director of the Proctor Maple Research Center, believes the vacuum is, on the whole, less invasive and therefore better for the tree, because, he says, “A lot of people who will tap with vacuums will not drill quite as deep a tap hole, just because you can get a much better yield with a vacuum. So, there’s no point in drilling a 3-inch deep tap hole [as is typically done with traditional spiles].” Instead, says Perkins, those producers using vacuum-based systems drill only about 1.5 inches into the tree.

The Colburns, as do many growers, limit taps per tree to two on trees that are larger than 18 inches diameter at breast height. Trees between 9 and 18 inches diameter only get one tap. Smaller trees aren’t tapped.

Grades of Syrup

Samples of sticky gold await grading.

Samples of sticky gold await grading.

Currently, various regions grade differently the syrup produced under their purvey. Beginning in 2014, however, an international system will be installed. Instead of an A and B grade, there will now just be several types of A based on color and strength of maple flavor, as well as commercial and substandard. This new system was enacted because, in part, the previous system listed the darker, stronger flavored syrup as B, which lead some consumers to believe, incorrectly, it was inferior.

Sticky Fingers

Maple production in Quebec is controlled through a supply management system, with producers receiving quota allotments from the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, which also maintains reserves of syrup. In 2012, a major heist of that syrup reserve was discovered, totaling some 6 million pounds that was valued at $18 million wholesale. Over the next year, 23 people were arrested in connection with the alleged theft.

A movie about the heist is currently being made. It will star Jason Segel, whose credits include TV’s How I Met Your Mother, and movies Bad Teacher and This is 40. The comedy will be directed by Seth Gordon, who directed, among other TV shows and films, Identity Thief and Horrible Bosses.

Smells So Sweet

Maple syrup products include:

  • Syrup: for use on anything from pancakes and ice cream to every elf’s favorite, spaghetti
  • Cream: use as a spread on baked goods, such as toast and cinnamon rolls
  • Candy: some candies are mixed with sugar, while pure maple candy is concentrated a step further than maple cream
  • Granular sugar: can be substituted for white processed sugar
  • Jelly, mustard, barbecue sauce, granola, coffee, tea and more are all sold with maple as an ingredient.
  • Perfume: men and women can sport the scent of pancakes and sugarhouses

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