The Culture of Maple
When the sugaring season begins in late February and March, hundreds of sugar bushes open up to the public for traditional meals and foods flavored by maple syrup and its derivatives.
Sugaring and sugar parties began in the mid eighteen hundreds and since then, community members, tourists and school children make their way to visit maple forests. For many, maple syrup season was their one outing into nature.
REDUCING DEFORESTATION AND OUR ENVIRONMENTAL FOOTPRINT
Maple syrup, a beloved natural sweetener, has the potential to play a significant role in reducing deforestation and minimizing our environmental footprint.
By supporting sustainable maple syrup production, we can encourage the preservation of vast tracts of maple forests, which serve as vital carbon sinks and rich habitats for diverse flora and fauna. These eco-friendly practices contribute to cleaner air and water systems, promoting a healthier planet for the wider community. As consumers, it is essential that we choose ethically-sourced maple syrup to foster responsible forest management and, in doing so, help protect our precious environment for generations to come.
Photo courtesy of Quebé Maple Producers
An Overview of the History and Culture of Maple Syrup
Matthew M. Thomas
There is a widely held belief that the Native peoples of North America discovered maple sugar by concentrating and boiling the sap of the maple tree. Colonists and settlers arriving from Europe in the 1600s learned to make maple sugar from the Indigenous Native residents. Early Euro-Americans and Euro-Canadians were familiar with cane sugar from the Caribbean Islands, but cane sugar was expensive and not readily available in the colonial era. Instead, the arriving populations embraced North America’s maple sugar as their own.
From the beginning, families turned maple sap into maple sugar rather than liquid maple syrup. Maple sugar was formed into cakes and packed in wood casks that were easier to store and transport than liquid maple syrup. One could always make syrup from maple sugar by adding water. The early methods of manufacturing maple sugar were simple and crude by today’s standards. In the spring when there were warm days and freezing nights, sap was gathered in troughs hollowed out from a split log, folded sheets of birchbark, or in wood pails set on the ground. An incision was made in the bark of the maple tree with an axe or hatchet, and a shingle-like piece of wood inserted into the bark below the cut directed sap flowing from the wound into the collection trough or pail. The sap was gathered by hand and poured into tanks pulled by horse or oxen to be stored in barrels. At an open-air boiling area sap was poured into a series of large metal kettles or cauldrons suspended over a fire. As the heat of the fires evaporated the sap in the kettles, more sap was added and further boiled, until there was enough thickened syrup to pour off into molds or containers to cool into dry and hard maple sugar. In the early years there was no commercial maple production. Instead, maple sugar was primarily made for home consumption and trading for other goods.
In the 1800s, we begin to see improvements in the methods and technology of making maple sugar. Round hand carved tubular wooden sap spouts were inserted into holes drilled in the tree with an auger or a brace and bit. Wooden pails replaced the rough-hewn troughs, and most importantly, large rectangular flat pans made from sheets of iron replaced the iron kettles. Flat pans were a significant leap forward in the technology of sugar making, allowing for a much larger surface area to be exposed to the heating fire, creating a more rapid and controlled boil, and permitting an increased surface for the emittance of steam.
Further technological advancements in sap collection came in the 1860s and 1870s with the introduction of cast iron and folded tin sap spouts and metal sap pails. Boiling technology took its greatest leap forward with the invention of the evaporator and arch in which a series of connected dividers or interior channels were added to the flat pan, permitting the continuous flow of sap from the raw stage to nearly finished syrup. In addition, flues or baffles were added to the bottom of the pan further increasing the surface area allowing one to process sap rapidly and with greater control. Maple sugar was still primarily the end-product through the end of the 1800s, so most larger sugar makers carried out a second step of reducing the syrup to the sugar stage on a smaller evaporator called a finishing evaporator.
With a need to protect their investments in manufactured evaporators sugarmakers began to build special buildings called sugar houses or cabane à sucre, to house the boiling equipment and protect the workers from the weather. Sugar houses are now found across the maple producing region and have become the most recognizable symbol of maple syrup production.
The second half of the twentieth century witnessed great labor and fuel saving innovations and new technologies for gathering and processing maple sap. Starting in the 1950s, sap pails that hung on trees were replaced with plastic tubing and vacuum pumps, connecting the sap giving trees to collection tanks. Later, reverse osmosis technology was introduced to reduce the energy requirements and speed up the process of concentrating sap. Over the years the containers used for packaging maple syrup have changed as well, evolving from square and round metal cans and simple glass bottles to plastic jugs and attractive specialty glass bottles. Today, depending on where one lives, it is common to see syrup sold in plastic, glass, or metal cans.
The twentieth century was also an era of greater government interest in food safety and the regulation of foods. The production of maple syrup had evolved into a multi-tiered commercial industry of producers, processors, and marketers, along with a variety of equipment manufacturers. University and government sponsored research and assistance became important additions to understanding and improving maple production and maple products. Likewise, local and international trade organizations, like the IMSI, were formed to advocate for and promote the protection and growth of the maple industry.
As cane sugar became less expensive and more easily purchased in the later part of the nineteenth century, production shifted from making maple sugar towards making maple syrup. At this same time, maple syrup became popular as a sweet condiment for breakfast foods and other uses. By the 1920s, the maple industry was almost exclusively producing maple syrup. To provide uniformity for sales and marketing as well as greater clarity for consumers, the maple industry in both the United States and Canada worked together to develop quality standards and a grading system to differentiate between flavors of syrup.
In the past, people welcomed the sugaring season as a sign that the difficult winter months were ending and spring was on its way. The arrival of spring was celebrated in the sugarbush as friends and families gathered for sugar on snow parties. With the evolution of the maple industry and a greater shift towards more urban settlement, new seasonal traditions were created such as groups gathering for weekend feasts at sugar house restaurants.
The maple industry is marked by a wide variety of syrup makers. At one level, there are thousands of small backyard or hobbyist maple producers tapping 500 trees or less. At the commercial level, the scale of commercial production has evolved over the last 150 years to a smaller number of maple operations that are larger in size and scope. Fifty years ago, a maple operation with 50,000 or even 100,000 or more taps was nearly unheard of, whereas today it is common to see commercial producers with over 100,000 taps.
About the Author
Dr. Matthew Thomas is a historian and archaeologist who researches and writes about all aspects of the maple syrup industry. To learn more about maple syrup history visit Dr. Thomas' website at www.maplesyruphistory.com.