Tap That Sap: Maple Sugaring

Todd H. C. Fischer and Melanie E. Fischer

Maple syrup. Is there one single foodstuff that so completely calls up images of Canada? Canada is, after all, the world’s leading producer of maple products, and it’s been made in North America for hundreds of years (at least). In fact, the symbol on the Canadian flag is a leaf of the sugar maple (acer saccharum).

When we moved to our one acre in Stone Mills last year, one thing we were excited about was engaging in various homesteading experiments. Melanie was especially eager to try making our own maple syrup.

The exact origins of creating maple syrup are unknown, though we know it was practiced by indigenous peoples of north-eastern North America long before European settlers arrived on the continent. There are several stories about how people discovered the method to create maple syrup (called sinzibuckward in Algonquin, meaning ‘drawn from wood’). Many of them feature a legendary figure (such as Glooskap, Kokomis, or NenawBozhoo) who discovered people drinking maple syrup directly from trees. Angered at this lazy behaviour, said cultural hero added water to the syrup—meaning maple syrup now required refining—and limiting its access to the spring. Some tribes tell a story of a chief who threw his tomahawk into a tree outside his longhouse. A bucket sitting under the tree collected the resulting running sap and someone (sometimes said to be the chief’s wife, sometimes his daughter) used the sap when boiling meat for their evening meal, discovering the secret of making syrup. The Haudenosaunee, Abenaki, and Mi’kmaq had a tradition of piercing the bark of a maple tree to draw off “sweet water” to use when cooking venison. The Anishinaabe collected sap during a period they called the “maple moon” or “sugar month” and practiced maple curing to allow food to be safely stored during the winter months.

How indigenous peoples collected sap varied, but one widely used method involved cutting a V-shaped mark into the bark of a maple tree. A wedge, or tube made from basswood or willow, would be put at the bottom of the cut which funnelled sap into baskets placed at the bottom of the trees. These baskets were hollowed out of wood with hatchets, forming a seamless vessel, and would be used for several seasons. Other kinds of buckets might be made from bark and only used for a single season. To make maple sugar, the sap would be put into wide, shallow bark vessels (often made of birch bark) and allowed to freeze. This process separated the sugar and the water, allowing the people to take off the layer of ice and keep the sugary liquid that remained. To make syrup, the sap would be boiled along with hot stones in birch-bark pots in “sugar bushes” (a small wall-less shelter made of tree branches). Clay or metal pots could also be used. The resulting syrup was then stored in baskets. The women of the tribe often did this work.

When European colonists arrived, they learned (among other things) how to make maple syrup from the local indigenous peoples. Settlers began maple sugaring in the late 1700s. Instead of using notches and wedges, settlers tended to use an augur to drill a hole into the tree, into which they inserted wooden spouts. Wooden buckets were then hung from the spouts to collect the sap. The buckets, when full, would be emptied into larger containers that would be hauled to a central location (called a sugar shack, sugar house, or cabane à sucre) by draft animals. There, it was boiled in iron kettles and turned into syrup. In the 1800s, several innovations in syrup production were introduced. Rather than kettles, boiling was done in large flat metal pans. An increased surface size allowed the sap to boil at a much faster rate. A two-pan evaporator cut down even more time from the process, and then flues were added to the bottom of the pans which further increased the surface area.

Maple syrup production has changed even more in the modern era, allowing large factories to produce vast quantities of syrup in vast factories. However, many people still produce their own syrup in the traditional way.

Though we had planned to wait until next year to try our hand at maple sugaring, we saw a starter kit while at the Home Hardware in Napanee. Purchase in hand, we went home and tapped our black maple. We have other maples on the property but thought we’d start small. We had felled a tree infested with black knot earlier this winter, so we had a lot of wood that needed to be burned. We cut three long branches into poles we set up as a tripod over our fire-pit. We placed a metal ring around the tops of the poles to keep them from falling apart from each other. We hung a string of lantern hooks from the ring, from which we suspended a Dutch oven. We heated our collected sap in the Dutch oven, boiling off the water and reducing the liquid by about three-quarters. The rest was transferred into a pot and boiled on our oven. Using a candy thermometer, we monitored the temperature of the syrup. You need to bring the liquid to a heat of 7 degrees (F) above the boiling point of water, which differs depending on your elevation. Since Stone Mills Township is approximately 147 meters above sea level, we needed to bring the syrup to just over 118 degrees (F). We then strained our syrup into a sterilized glass jar (glass being the best receptacle) through a double layer of cheesecloth to remove impurities. From our original 2 gallons of sap, we ended up with half a pint of maple syrup, which was dark and slightly smoky in flavour. Our second batch was more amber. The process took on average (so far) 2.6 hours to boil the sap over the fire, and then 40 minutes to finish it on the stove.

We hope to build a large grill for next spring and boil the sap in large pans to speed up the boiling process. We’ll let you know how it goes.