Who would think of sticking something in a maple tree and boiling the sap to make syrup? The Iroquois have an answer in this old legend. The story begins on a day in early March. Chief Woksis had thrown his tomahawk into a nearby maple tree. The next day, he needed the weapon for hunting and yanked it from the tree. The weather turned warm and the gash in the maple tree dripped sap into a container that was near the trunk. That evening, the chief’s wife was heading to the stream for water and found the container with sap and thought it was just like water. She tasted the liquid, found it to be sweet, and used it for cooking water. When Woksis came home from hunting, he smelled a wonderful scent – a maple aroma. The water had boiled down to syrup and had sweetened their meal with maple. So, the legend says, the happy practice of maple syrup production began!
Sap is produced in Spring – it flows from the roots to the branches of the tree. But early on in maple syrup production, getting to the sap was not easy. Recorded accounts indicate an ax or some other sharp object was used to chop a groove into a tree to release sap. But producers found the “ax method” damaged trees and contaminated the sap in future years. So, they began to drill holes into the trees a few days before the sap was expected to start running. Producers then collected the sap in buckets hung from wooden spouts called spiles. Originally, spiles were made from hollowed out sumac branches, but later were fashioned out of metal. Spiles were removed after the sap stopped flowing to allow the tree to heal.
While the sap flowed, buckets were checked daily to make sure there was no overflow. Full buckets were emptied into barrels and hauled through the woods (also called the sugar bush) by horse drawn wagons.
Not much has changed over the years – some large scale maple producers continue to collect sap in buckets – a time consuming and hard job. But by using buckets, maples producers can easily recognize good sap-producing trees. And today, the equipment is of much higher quality.
Turning sap into syrup involves evaporation – water must be removed to produce a more concentrated sugar solution. Early methods included using hot rocks in hollowed out logs to speed evaporation. Later, metal containers were used over open fires. But producers discovered that boiling sap in a single kettle often resulted in a darker, lower quality syrup. Using a series of kettles produced a higher grade of syrup. Modern evaporators evolved from that open kettle system.
It still takes approximately 43 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of maple syrup. Sap becomes syrup when the sugar concentration reaches about 67%.