It started at the end of last spring and thousands of springs before that. Production of the amber-colored liquid that flavors pancakes, baked goods, candy and sugar always begins when sunlight reaches the leaves of tall maple trees in the process called photosynthesis. The tree's excess food is converted to easily stored glucose, then stored as starch. When temperatures drop, the starch turns back into sugars which re-enter the sap. As temperatures rise, so does the sap, flowing toward branches and twigs to feed new growth and start up the food production again.
While this cycle is not unique, the sugary sap of 13 varieties of maple is uniquely North American, mainly in the United States north of Virginia and in Canada. Three trees (and their hybrids) dominate the industry: the sugar maple, black maple and red maple. How did Native Americans happen upon "sinzibuckwud," Algonquin for "drawn from wood?" There are several legends, one being that the wife of Iroquois Chief Woksis used dripping sap from a tree instead of water to refill a boiling pot of meat. Research shows that it was used as an energy food and sweetener for thousands of years before early explorers (circa mid-1500's) spied this potential sugar rival.
By the eighteenth century the Quakers were promoting native maple sugar over imported cane sugar produced with slave labor, and George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had both tried their hands (unsuccessfully) at this new "cash crop." At the end of the nineteenth century the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association was formed to set industry standards and practices.
Ohio Maple Syrup, is pure, natural and healthy. Canada produces 75 percent of the world’s maple syrup.
Kaylee Bishop, 6, of Martins Ferry, tries her hand at drilling a tap hole with a 19th century auger at Oglebay’s Maple Sugaring Day.
Greg Park, Oglebay’s Nature and Interpretation Director, demonstrates how Native Americans boiled sap into maple sugar. They heated rocks in a campfire and transferred them to a trough of sap using antlers, reheating and transferring the rocks until the liquid was a sticky mass. It sometimes took days.
Tommy Bruce explains 18th century America’s tools of the maple trade at Oglebay’s Maple Sugaring Day. Settlers whittled spiles (or taps) which were pounded into the trees and on which wooden collecting buckets hung. Cauldrons over campfires boiled the sap into syrup.
Steam rises from hot sap in an evaporator, which has taken the place of kettles and cauldrons in the boiling down process. The first evaporator was patented in Ohio in the late 1800’s.
The harvesting process itself has changed little over the millennia. Originally Native Americans scored the tree bark, chiseling a "V" through several layers and collecting the sap in wooden bowls as it ran down the channels. Their desired end product was not so much a liquid, but a concentrated hard candy substance that could be eaten for energy (carbohydrates) during the winter, as a sweet treat or pounded into grains or powder to sweeten foods. They used it for bartering, especially once the settlers arrived. To boil the liquid down, sap was poured into a wooden trough. Rocks heated in a campfire were scooped up with fashioned antler "tongs," and placed into the trough to heat and eventually boil the liquid. Labor intensive, it sometimes took days to complete.
Settlers soon discovered that harvesting sap this way more often than not killed the tree. Augers enabled drilling that kept trees intact. Cauldrons of cast iron or copper placed over the fire eliminated the laborious heated stone process. They used wooden collection buckets until the Industrial Revolution when Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel began manufacturing some of the first keelers-a metal bucket with a handle and removable lid. According to Greg Moore of Oglebay Institute's Schrader Environmental Center, the cover didn't keep bugs, deer or dirt away from the sap as much as water from snow or rain. Less water meant less boiling time. Eventually plastic units replaced the metal ones, and modern plastic bag collectors now keep the sap even cleaner. Approximately 50 years ago, a plastic tube collection system that tapped in and linked to several trees at once was patented in Vermont. The tubing leads to one large collection vessel, and versions of this are what large-scale producers use today. Recently the University of Vermont developed a tubing system that can extend the season by as much as 25 percent.
Most of the boiling kettles and cauldrons are gone, too. A patent for an evaporator was granted to G.H. Grimm of Hudson, Ohio in 1884. These machines are reminiscent of a wood stove with two pans on top, one for sap and one for syrup, that generate lots of steam.
Speaking of producing, the Quebec province of Canada supplies 75 percent of the world's maple syrup. In the United States, Vermont takes about a six percent share of world production and is the top U.S. maple syrup state. Ohio usually ranks fourth or fifth, after Maine, New York and Pennsylvania. It takes around 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. When properly tapped, maple trees have been known to produce syrup sap for over 150 years.
The industry is considered sustainable farming. Many of Ohio's 900 maple sugar farmers supplement regular farm income with this winter "crop," and some maple farmers go back seven generations. This year's mild winter and early spring got the sap started early, so for most of Ohio the season has ended. As trees begin their new growth cycle, sap becomes less sweet and more nutrient functional for the trees.
Although dieters may shy away from maple syrup's calories (17 calories per teaspoon,) it is only 1.5 calories more than white sugar, contains 20 percent fewer calories than honey and is a far healthier choice than white sugar or any artificial sweeteners. Maple syrup contains calcium, zinc and the trace mineral manganese with no fat, sodium or cholesterol. Manganese is necessary to some antioxidant processes that produce energy and fight free radicals; zinc also has antioxidant properties. Research shows zinc being important to cell health in fighting atherosclerosis and manganese helpful in maintaining HDL ("good") cholesterol levels. Both are important to building and healing healthy cells in the immune system, especially in children. Adequate levels of manganese and zinc are both related to men's reproductive health; men with low levels of zinc have a higher risk of prostate cancer.
Real maple syrup (i.e. not Mrs. Butterworth's) is virtually non-allergenic and 100 percent natural. For non-diabetics the benefits of stirring a teaspoon of pure maple syrup into a cup of coffee, a bowl of oatmeal or cooked carrots every day outweigh the pittance-worth of calories that can be easily cut somewhere else.
Regarding flavor, it can range from light and slightly sweet to a near-molasses flavor and texture. Much like the concept of "terroir" in wine, it depends on the type of tree, the location, the climate and weather, the soil and when it's tapped. Again, just like wine, not everyone prefers real maple syrup. A recent informal survey for this article revealed that 52 percent preferred the real thing while 44 percent like "fake" or manufactured maple-flavored syrups; 4 percent would rather have fruit syrup or don't care for syrup at all. Of the responders, 57 percent said their "favorite breakfasts" included pancakes, waffles or French toast with syrup.
For more information on maple syrup and to find Ohio maple farmers, visit www.ohiomapleproducers.com. To see the process in action (and do some tasting) consider a trip north to Chardon for the 83rd annual Geauga County Maple Festival April 26 through 29 (www.maplefestival.com).