There is made from it a beverage very pleasing to drink, of the colour of Spanish wine but not so good. It has a sweetness which renders it of very good taste; it does not inconvenience the stomach…This is the drink of the Indians, and even of the French, who are fond of it.” Nicolas Denys, 1672.1
“I was regaled here with the juice of the maple; this is the season of its flowing. It is extremely delicious, has a most pleasing coolness, and is exceedingly wholesome; the manner of its extracting is very simple.” Charlevoix 1721.2
When the last gasp of winter are in the air and the days sun begins to melt the snow from the landscape, nature wakes itself from slumber and sends life giving food back through trees and plants. For the maple tree, this food that runs through the tree is sweet, and when the water is evaporated, becomes a wonderful syrup or sugar. No one knows when the Native Americans of the Northeast discovered this sweet sap. Europe has maple trees but not the climate or conditions necessary to produce this same sweet sap. The Iroquois legend says:
“The Creator had at first made life too easy for his people by filling the maple trees with a thick syrup that flowed year-round. One day, Glooskap, a mischievous young man, found a village of his people strangely silent – the cooking fires were dead, weeds had overtaken the gardens. Glooskap discovered the villagers laying in the woods, eyes closed, letting the syrup from the maple trees drip into their mouths. Glooskap brought fresh water from the lake and using his special power filled the trees with water until the syrup ran from them thin and fast. He then ordered his people up, telling them that the trees were no longer filled with the maple syrup, but only a watery sap. He told them they would have to hunt and fish and tend their gardens for sustenance. He promised that the sap would run again, but only during the winter when game is scarce, the lake is frozen, and crops do not grow.”3
The French were some of the first Europeans to witness the process of tapping the trees. Collecting the sap and producing syrup fascinated the immigrants coming to the Northeast. The earliest accounts come from the 1550s describe the technique, a couple of slashes with a tomahawk cuts the bark in a V. A piece of wood was inserted in the V so the sap would drip into a birch bark basket. The sap would be collected in a hollowed out log where hot rocks would be used to evaporate some of the water. The result was far from the maple syrup we know today but it was sweet and considered good for colds, aches and an energy drink. Sometimes they would boil meat in the sap, pour it over snow or mix it with corn meal, chestnuts and berries to make a dish called sappaen. For a month or more in late winter it became their principal food.
“Quitserza, or the nourishing food which is used by the savages and even the French on their long journeys through the wilderness when they cannot carry much food, is made of maize flour and this sugar prepared and mixed by special process…A small sack of this food, which can be carried under a man’s arm, can serve as his food for one or two months.” Kalm, 1751.4
In 1755, a young colonist was captured and "adopted" by a small group of natives in the region that is now Ohio. His description of maple syrup production offers another option.
“Shortly after we came to this place the squaws began to make sugar. We had no large kettles with us this year, and they made the frost, in some measure, supply the place of fire, in making sugar. Their large bark vessels, for holding the stock-water, they made broad and shallow; and as the weather is very cold here, it frequently freezes at night in sugar time; and the ice they break and cast out of the vessels. I asked them if they were not throwing away the sugar they said no; it was water they were casting away, sugar did not freeze, and there was scarcely any in that ice. They said I might try the experiment, and boil some of it, and see what I would get. I never did try it; but I observed that after several times freezing, the water that remained in the vessel, changed its colour and became brown and very sweet.”5
Europeans put more of an emphasis on making maple sugar. In the early spring when the sap was running enough maple sugar could be made to last the year. The practice of tapping the tree evolved so less damage was done to the tree and the same tree could be tapped for many years. A hole was drilled with a metal auger and a sumac spile (a hollow stick) was used to drip the sap into wooden buckets or hollowed out troughs at the base of the tree.
Fires were made out in the sugar bush (a grove of maple sugar trees) with large metal kettles suspended over the fire. The sap would be boiled over the fire until almost all the liquid was gone then poured into molds to make the maple sugar cakes. Maple sugar cakes could be easily stored and used instead of expensive Caribbean cane sugar. In the late 18th century Dr. Benjamin Rush became a champion of producing and using maple sugar for health reasons, “the plague has never been known in any country where sugar composes a material part of the diet of the inhabitants” and also as an abolitionist cause. If cane sugar was not needed then the institution of slavery in the Caribbean would not be needed. This idea would be picked up again before the Civil War. Maple sugar became even more popular after the British government passed the Sugar Act of 1764 which imposed high duties on imported sugar. Using maple syrup and sugar became an expression of protest against the British Parliament taxing the American colonies. Thomas Jefferson took the cause a patriotic step further. On his return from France he joined Dr. Rush’s Society for Promoting Manufacture of Sugar from the Sugar Maple Tree and proposed a plan to have yeomen farmers of America produce enough maple sugar to supply the country’s needs and also export to put the British sugar producers out of business. The maple sugar scheme combined his love of botany, antislavery sentiments, his desire for his country to achieve economic independence, his dislike of the British and his vision of the yeomen farmer as the backbone of the American republic. In May of 1791 Jefferson and James Madison made a trip to Vermont (the country’s newest state) plus upstate New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Long Island to encourage farmers to plant orchards of maple trees to help America gain economic independence from its largest import – cane sugar.6
Into the 19th century the process of collecting and boiling maple sap did not change much. Camp was set up in the sugar bush during the maple sugaring time and the fire was constant. Nearly all the maple producers were dairy farmers who would work together as a community before planting season began. What was being produced was still mainly maple sugar to supply the families with sugar for the year and an extra income selling sugar cakes. At first the sugar molds were simple. Later they became decorative, made out of wood and metal.
After the Civil War technology started to change how maple sap was collected and processed. Tin buckets were used to catch the sap and sugar shacks were built for large scale production. Tin cans allowed syrup to be sealed, stored and shipped all over America. In approximately 1864, a Canadian borrowed some design ideas from sorghum (molasses) evaporators and put a series of baffles in flat tin pans to channel the boiling sap. In 1872 a Vermonter developed an evaporator with two pans and a metal arch or firebox which greatly decreased boiling time. Seventeen years later, in 1889, another Canadian bent the tin that formed the bottom of a pan into a series of flues which increased the heated surface area of the pan and again decreased boiling time. The boiling time was always the longest part of the process. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup and takes even longer to boil down to sugar.7 This has always been a very labor intensive endeavor but with great rewards. In the 1800s the U.S. production of syrup was 4 times what it is today. With the clearing of forests for agriculture, cheaper cane and beet sugar coming from the south, syrup became a delicacy and more favored than maple sugar. Nearly all maple sap is made into syrup today, although maple sugar can still be found in the form of maple candy.
Today the process of maple sap collection is evolving again. Maple producers are now using vacuum pumps and plastic tubing to tap the trees so the sap runs directly to the sugar shack where large evaporators use electricity to control the temperature and process large quantities of maple syrup with less labor. Scientific processes are being used like maximizing the sap season by knowing the best temperatures for tapping, pre-heaters to "recycle" heat lost in the steam, and reverse osmosis, a process of purification using a semipermeable membrane to remove larger particles from the sap before it is boiled. Maple sugar is now being looked at again as a more natural alternative to processed sugar. Maple sugar and syrup retain their natural nutrients and are a rich source of both manganese and zinc. Vermont is the leading producer of maple syrup, followed by New York in the United States. The world’s largest supplier of syrup is the province of Quebec in Canada.
1 Denys, Nicolas. 1672. “Histoire naturelle des peoples, des animaux, des arbres & plantes de l’Amerique septentrionale & de ses divers climats: avec une description exacte de la peche des molues, tant sur le Grand-Banc qu’a la coste, et de tout ce qui s’y pratique de plus particulier, &c.” Paris: Chez Claude Barbin.
2 Charlevoix, P.F.X. 1744. Journal d’un Voyage dans l’Amerique Septentionnale. Paris: Giffart. Quoted in H.A. Schuette and Sybil C. Schuette, “Maple sugar: a bibliography of early records.” Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, volume XXIX (1935).
4 Kalm, Peter. 1751. Beskrifning hum socker gores uti Novia America. Stockholm: Kungliga Svenska Veteskaps Academiens Handlingar. “Peter Kalm’s description of how sugar is made from various types of trees in North America. 1939.” Trans. By Esther Louise Larsen. Agricultural history: Volume 13, Number 3. Fargo, N.D.: Agricultural History Society.
5 Smith, James. 1799. “An Account of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Col. James Smith
6 Theobold, Mary Miley. “Thomas Jefferson and the Maple Sugar Scheme.” CW Journal: Autumn 2012.7 http://wildblueberries.net/maplehistory