A Springtime Ritual: Tapping for Maple’s Sweet Gold

From American Spirit Magazine
March/April 2007

In early spring, as the maple trees start their new growth spurts, the sap within them that remained frozen all winter long begins to thaw. This is what sugar makers wait for all year long. It’s the beginning of the maple harvest season, when sugar houses across New England and Canada are busy tapping maple trees of their sap—a clear, slightly sweet liquid that is boiled down to a sweet syrup. The details of when, where and by whom the first maple was tapped are debatable. But one thing is certain: Maple syrup has become one of America’s culinary treasures—and a cultural celebration for the select few regions worldwide where sugar making takes place.

the early sugaring process

Before maple syrup came maple sugar, which did not spoil when stored. Journals kept by early explorers reveal that by the time the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth Rock in 1620, Native American Indians had been sugaring—tapping maple trees and cooking the sap over an open fire until it became syrup and eventually a nonperishable sugar—for more than a decade. In fact, the Sugar Moon is linked to the month of March in the Native American calendar when many tribes celebrated the first sugar with a spirited festival that included a Maple Dance intended to set the pace for a bountiful season.

As Janet Eagleson, author of The Maple Syrup Book (Boston Mills Press, 2006) explains, “The medicine man would often mix a small amount of last year’s harvest with the first harvest of the year to extend the blessing and good luck of the season. It was a fantastic party that involved everyone in the tribe, and the better the party, the better the maple season.” Today, major maple syrup-producing regions continue the tradition with events like Québec’s annual sugaring-off festival at Sucrerie de la Montagne.

New England explorers recorded three kinds of maple sugar produced by Native Americans: grain sugar, similar to today’s brown sugar; cake sugar, which could be poured into wooden molds for easy storing and shaving throughout the year; and wax sugar, made by coating snow with extra-thick syrup. Maple sugar soon became a regular stand-in for the unaffordable cane sugar from the West Indies and turned into a valuable trading commodity. One early champion of locally produced sugar was Thomas Jefferson, who transplanted young sugar maples from Vermont—the second largest maple-syrup producer worldwide—to his plantation in Monticello, Va. Unfortunately, the southern climate was unsuitable for sap production, and Jefferson was left with thriving trees but no syrup.

a serendipitous discovery

According to Native American folklore, the discovery of maple syrup as its own delicacy, and not just another step in the sugar-making process, was a serendipitous one. Legend has it that Chief Woksis, the great Iroquois hunter, tipped his axe into the trunk of a maple one late winter evening before going to bed. He removed his weapon the next morning and took it with him on a long hunt. The days turned warmer while he was away, and the tree’s sap dripped into a container the hunter had left behind. His industrious wife happened upon it, assumed it was frozen water and set about boiling meat with it. As her recipe bubbled away over the fire, the sweetness of the sap deepened, and when Woksis returned, he devoured the dish.

Still, boiling sap down to crystallized sugar was a more valuable commodity to early Americans than turning it into syrup.

tapping success

As winter thawed into spring, Native American families—and later New England settlers—would set up sugar camps among the maple trees. There, they would slash notches into the trunks and collect the sap in clay or bark vessels, boiling the water away by dropping heated rocks into the containers.

With experience comes experimentation, and the settlers started to look for ways to industrialize the production of their coveted maple syrup. A drill and spile, which is a spout to draw off sap, replaced the axe, while copper and iron kettles were put to work over open fires. Early spiles were fashioned out of hollowed-out softwood twig and inserted into the drilled hole in maple trees. Sap spilled out into bark containers placed below where it was then boiled down before being transferred into a succession of smaller and smaller vessels. When the syrup sufficiently thickened, it was stirred to speed up the formation of sugar crystals and then, finally, poured into molds. It was an assembly-line process, albeit a slow one, and the variety of tasks involved served to bring pioneer families together. As the adults worked the bubbling pots—each one filled with syrup at a different stage of the thickening process—their children, still bundled from the cold, watched excitedly as a newly drilled tree cried its first sweet tears.

metal power

Through the next century, maple-sugar production became more controlled, cleaner and complex. Sugar makers substituted metal buckets and shallow, flat-bottomed pans for the early wooden models as metal spouts were introduced. The flat pans were suspended in an arch above the fire, and tents were also built over the pans to create sheltered “sugar houses.”

By the late 1800s, a purpose-built device called an “evaporator” was used (a patent wasn’t registered until 1884). Designed by a Vermont sugar maker, it consisted of a flat pan built with separate channels and compartments that would allow fresh sap to flow in one end while finished syrup could be drawn out the other. Ridges at the bottom of the pan further increased the surface area for heating, greatly accelerating the boiling of sap into syrup. Maple sugar production had never been so efficient.

Then something unexpected happened. The import tax on cane sugar was removed, and the new kid on the block knocked maple sugar out of popularity. This wasn’t a problem for the New England sugar makers, who cunningly capitalized on the trend by re-branding their business into syrup. The old sugar molds gave way to bottles and cans filled with their signature amber liquid, and sweet success hasn’t stopped flowing since.

Reverse-osmosis reduction, steam-and-oil powered evaporation, vacuum systems and computerization are some of the technological advances that have sped up the production of maple syrup, but the basic evaporator design hasn’t changed much since the late 1900s. Still, just as the original model was conceived in Vermont, syrup researchers and makers there are at the forefront of maple-syrup production, constantly striving for more efficient, cost-effective ways to produce their precious commodity. Recent innovations include smaller spouts and replaceable “spout insertions,” allowing syrup makers to start each season with a brand new spout, thus reducing the chances of outside bacterial contamination. These sustainable initiatives, aside from affording syrup makers the possibility of higher yields, also result in less damage to our treasured maples during the tapping process.

learning to tap

It’s easy to see why Chief Woksis’ wife thought the pot at the base of that old tree was full of water: maple sap drips clear, is only about 2 to 3 percent sugar and is only slightly sweet on the tongue. Maple sap usually has a higher sugar content in springtime than at any other time of the year, which means it takes less time and energy to turn it into precious syrup.

Trying to tap at the right time of year didn’t—and still doesn’t—guarantee success. If you’re thinking about tapping your own trees, you need the right kind (there are 13 native maple species in North America) growing in the right environment, factors found together only in parts of Canada, New England and the upper Midwest. You also need patience. You’ll need about 10 gallons of sap to create just one quart of syrup. When trees grow to about a foot in diameter, they are ready to be tapped. Sugar maples take between 40 to 60 years to reach this stage, and most trees can take only one or two tappings per season.

At a basic level, tapping maple trees requires a drill bit, a tapper such as a battery-powered drill or gasoline-powered tapper, spouts or spiles, a small mallet and a clean bucket. Making your own maple syrup can be rewarding, and many commercial producers hold open houses during springtime so you can learn the tricks of the trade.

The production of sap is a marvelous manifestation of the relationship between earth and air, and it helps to understand what’s going on in your maples before you take a tapper to trunk. During late summer and fall when temperatures start to drop, maple trees enter a period of declined growth and begin to store the excess starches throughout the sapwood. As soon as the wood warms to 40 degrees F, the stored starch turns into sugars and infuses the sap.

As Brian Stowe, sugaring operations manager at the Proctor Maple Research Center at the University of Vermont explains, “It’s up to the whim of the weather.” During a warm day, the tree thaws out, and the sap starts flowing. Then, as the evening turns cooler and the tree begins to freeze, the dissolved gases in the tree create a negative pressure that allows it to draw water from the soil. Sugar concentration in the sap can vary day to day, hour by hour. Tapping the tree decreases the pressure inside it and frees the sap. While the incision may technically be a wound, it is one that does no damage if the maples are healthy and if we, in turn, continue to cherish, celebrate and respect them as the Native Americans did.

making the grade

There are four grades of maple syrup according to color and favor: Grade A Light Amber, Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber and Grade B, which is the darkest of all. The deeper the color, the stronger the flavor. Like wine, the characteristics of the local soil are reflected in its resulting syrup, so taste to find your favorite. Vermont and Ontario produce the sweetest syrups. Grade B is the rarest and also the best for cooking since it can hold its own among other flavors in dish. Try it simmered in baked beans, or as part of a marinade for meat or fish, like Woksis’ wife did. Lighter syrups are best poured over ice cream, fresh-cut fruit and of, course, a lofty stack of pancakes.


Besides its unparalleled flavor, maple syrup is a source of minerals including calcium, potassium and iron, and it contains fewer calories than sugar. There are many ways to show off maple’s marvels in the kitchen.

During Colonial times, Native Americans enjoyed a simple dish similar to this that they called Sautauthig (pronounced saw-taw-teeg). The settlers adopted the recipe and embellished it with milk, butter and sugar. One colonist even found it worth writing home about: “…this is to be boyled or stued with a gentle fire, till it be tender, of a fitt consistence, as of Rice so boyled, into which Milke, or butter be put either with sugar or without it, it is a food very pleasant.”

Feel free to add your own special touches.

Maple, Corn & Blueberry Porridge
3/4 cup water
3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup quick-cooking grits or cornmeal
a good pat of butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
A pinch of nutmeg
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 cup fresh blueberries

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat water and milk over a medium flame until bubbles form around edge of the pan. Meanwhile, combine the cornmeal or grits with the salt and nutmeg in a separate bowl. Slowly add the dry ingredients, mix well and stir in the butter until melted. Reduce heat to low and cover, cooking until thickened (about five minutes). Gently fold in the maple syrup and berries.

Serves four.