Photo Credit: Melanie Brooks
Native Americans were using maple sugar as a sweetener long before the pilgrims set foot on North America. The Indians traded the maple sugar with the colonists, who, in turn, learned how to make the sweet treat from the Native Americans.
Maple sugar was the predominant way to sweeten things up in America until the 1800s, when the sugar cane industry started in the Caribbean. In the early days sugar cane was expensive, especially to those in the northeast living far from the tropical waters of the Caribbean islands. But today sugar is cheap, and maple sugar and maple syrup have become specialty items--tasty ones at that!
The processing of harvesting maple sap and making maple syrup hasn’t drastically changed over the years. What has changed is the efficiency in production and final quality of the product. Native Americans harvested sap by cutting holes in the maple trees and collecting the sap in buckets made out of birch bark or hollowed out logs. This method left a lot of debris in the sap and, eventually, the finished sugar. Today, sap is collected in plastic or metal buckets. Larger operations collect sap in plastic tubes that are strung from tree to tree, allowing the sap to be pumped directly to the sugar house. This saves a lot of time and effort if you have upward of 100 trees!
Once collected, the sap needs to be boiled for hours to produce high quality syrup. Native Americans boiled the sap in wooden containers by dropping hot stones into the liquid—a job that took countless hours to complete. The European settlers sped up the process by using iron kettles.
Maine, as well as other northern New England states, is perfectly suited for maple syrup production. Maple sap will only produce sweetness when the trees are located in a region where sunny days with warm temperatures follow cold nights with freezing temperatures for days on end. The epitome of our springtime weather.
Harvesting time in Maine happens between late February to mid-April. Once the sap starts flowing, it needs to be processed within hours or it will spoil. Maple syrup production is a 24-hour operation in peak season! Whether you’re lugging buckets of sap by hand to the sugar house or it’s traveling there through a tube system, the sap goes into an evaporator where it is boiled. The syrup maker knows that when the temperature of the sap reaches 107 degrees, it’s ready to go! The syrup is then filtered, packed into jars or bottles, and sealed for freshness.
All of the Maine maple syrup sold commercially is Grade A. Below is the breakdown of the color variants of Grade A syrup, according to the Maine Maple Producers Association:
Golden Color with Delicate Flavor: This has a ﬁne pronounced sweetness with a delicate maple ﬂavor. This syrup is desirable for pancakes, wafﬂes, French toast, and as an ice cream topping if a delicate maple flavor is desired.
Amber Color with Rich Flavor: This syrup has a slightly stronger ﬂavor with a noticeable darker color. This syrup is by far the most popular choice for all purpose syrup. This grade has a rich full bodied taste that makes it the perfect complement to most foods.
Dark Color with Robust Flavor: This is less desirable as a table syrup but often preferred in baking and cooking because of its strong ﬂavor. This syrup is great to pour over baked apples or squash or use as a glaze on meats and vegetables.
Very Dark Color with Strong Flavor: This is great in foods and recipes where a strong maple presence is desire. Wonderful in cookies, breads, and baked beans. Due to the nature of this syrup, it is often only packaged in larger plastic containers.
Each spring, Maine sugar houses open their doors to the public to show off the maple syrup production. Maine Maple Sunday, as the event is called, is a great way to learn about how maple syrup is made and get a sampling of the delicious treat. To find a list of the maple syrup producers who take part in Maine Maple Sunday, visit www.mainemapleproducers.com. Below is a list of sugar houses in The Maine Highlands region:
Back Ridge Sugar House
107 Boston Road, Winterport
Cider Hill Maple Farm
247 Cider Hill Road, Exeter
207-379-4426 or 207-270-2130
Nutkin Knoll Farm and Sugarworks
269 Chapman Road, Newburgh