Inside the Outdoors: Spring’s sweetness is more than a figure of speech
Inside the Outdoors with Mike Rahn
No matter how slow and tentative, the arrival of spring is sweet relief after four-plus months of snow and cold. One tangible dimension of that sweetness, and an unmistakable sign of spring, is the phenomenon of maple sap beginning to flow in the “arteries” of sugar, black, red and silver maple trees. Apart from its importance in the life cycle of the trees, this sap flow intersects with the economic interests and the taste buds of humans, in the ultimate forms of maple syrup and maple sugar.
For most of us, familiarity with these delightful condiments we use to sweeten our pancakes, waffles and cereals, begins and ends with a grocer or specialty food store’s shelves. We may know where the raw material comes from, and the contribution the end products make to our eating enjoyment. We might be aware that a boiling process bridges the gap between the two. Beyond that, the details that most of us have are sketchy.
Daytime temperatures that elevate into the 40-degree range, and descend below the freezing mark at night, trigger the flow of maple sap throughout these trees. In our part of the world this is typically a March event, although—depending on seasonal conditions and location—it can begin in February or extend into April. Once leaf buds appear with the arrival of constant above-freezing temperatures, a maple tree’s winter slumber is over, and so is the annual rite of maple sap gathering.
As excellent as Minnesota’s maple products are, our state is a minor player on the world stage. Depending on the data source, between 75 and 80 percent of world maple product production comes from our neighbor to the north, Canada. And of that, the majority comes from the province of Quebec. Very small shares of world production come from Europe, the Scandinavian countries and elsewhere.
In the U.S., Vermont is far and away the largest producer. Others whose production is tracked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) include New York, Maine, Wisconsin, Michigan, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. Of the 19 states generally recognized as producing maple syrup and sugar, these few are the only states whose production is tracked by the USDA, perhaps because of their long-term production history.
Oddly, Minnesota is not listed in these rankings. Notably, there is no official tracking of so-called ”hobby” producers, whose low-volume output nevertheless may collectively contribute a significant amount to overall maple syrup and maple sugar production. Minnesota is the producing state situated at the most northerly latitude, as well as the most westerly longitude, according to the web site of the Minnesota Maple Syrup Producers Association. Maple syrup and sugar production is not limited to the northern parts of Minnesota. There are producers border to border, from Cook County at the very northeast tip of the state, to Fillmore County at our southern border with Iowa.
Some of these Minnesota producers are open for tours during the production season, as indicated in the Directory section of the Association website: https://www.mnmaple.org/directory . In addition, both the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and local groups—arboretums, for instance—sponsor watch-and-learn opportunities. Information on DNR-sponsored programs can be found in the Events Calendar at this website: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/maple_syruping.html . These programs have attendee limits, however, and some fill up fast.
The simplest way to collect maple sap that will be boiled down to make syrup or sugar is to drill a hole in the trunk, pound in a metal “spile,” and hang a bucket from the downward-angled spile. Sap then flows through the spile, drip fashion and into the bucket. A more elaborate collection process uses flexible plastic tubing, connected tree to tree, through which the sap flows to a central collection point.
It takes about 40 gallons of sap, sometimes a bit more, to distill one gallon of syrup. Maple sugar is produced by continuing to boil the syrup to evaporate more water, heating the syrup to a temperature that is 45-50 degrees Fahrenheit above the boiling point—212 degrees—of water. It takes roughly a quart of syrup to make two pounds of maple sugar, which is used by many as a more flavorful substitute for cane or beet sugar.
In our Western Hemisphere, maple syrup and sugar production, as well as the maple curing of meats for preservation, date back centuries. Indigenous Eastern Woodlands peoples were practicing the collection and processing of maple sap before the arrival of Europeans in North America. The same is true of the Anishinaabe peoples of the Great Lakes States and Canada, using natural materials—like hollow basswood or willow stems, before metal spiles—to direct the sap into birch bark containers.
Some of the water in the maple sap could be separated by freezing, then discarded. Heated rocks could be placed in these vessels, or clay pots heated over fires, to boil off the remaining water. Once metal pots became available through trading with Europeans, these came into regular use for reducing sap to syrup.
The earliest descriptions of this process recorded by Europeans in North America are believed to date back to 1557, in chronicles of the explorations of Frenchman Jacques Cartier. Later, French settlers in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s learned the techniques from these indigenous peoples. The products of this intriguing natural process have remained vital and valued—not to mention delicious—from that day to this.