Sap bags hang from spiles in a sugarbush in rural northeast Wisconsin.

Maple syrup production is one of the oldest agricultural enterprises in North America, yet most people know as little about it as they do about where their other food comes from. That could change, of course: Some handsome guy from rural Vermont could wind up on The Bachelor sharing his passion for aerial tubing vacuum collection, reverse osmosis systems, and barrel-aged maple syrup in reduction sauces. The network would brand him “the sweetest bachelor ever.” And that would be about as representative as a Currier & Ives holiday card showing a horse-drawn sleigh carrying a red-cheeked sap collection crew to a cauldron bubbling over a wood fire.

The 21st century reality of maple syrup production is less romantic. And like most agricultural enterprises, it’s about as likely to make you rich as being on a reality show is to make you happily wed. But maple syrup is ingrained in the culture of where I live in rural northern Wisconsin, and other northern tier states. It’s an even bigger deal in Canada. So here’s what you should know about real maple syrup.

You’re supporting family farms. The 2012 Census of Agriculture from the USDA reported 8,261 farms producing maple syrup in the U.S. Of those farms, 7,139 were owned by families or individuals. While some are operated by farm corporations and other legal entities, in the U.S. it’s most common to find producers who have a hands-on connection to their product. So you might encourage your FFA pancake breakfast organizers to replace that high-fructose corn product with pure maple syrup to show support for those family farms.

You’re a permaculture rock star when you choose real maple syrup made by a small producer. Valuing the marginal is a key concept in permaculture. As an agricultural commodity, maple syrup traditionally has been produced on land that’s not particularly well suited to other crops. It’s hard to raise corn and soybeans in the stony, sandy soil of northern Wisconsin, or the steep slopes of New England. But we have lots of maple trees. Managing a healthy forest to produce an annual yield has long been part of how farm families make do. “Permies” see it as that plus carbon sequestration.

It pays the taxes. There’s a long tradition of small producers using syrup sales to pay the taxes on their land. So when you patronize a roadside stand selling home-grown syrup, you’re also supporting the local school, fire department, ambulance service, roads, and all the other things funded by property taxes.

Pure maple syrup from northern Wisconsin.
Pure maple syrup from northern Wisconsin.

It’s not a hobby. Sure, many producers start out tapping a few trees with family and friends. But getting beyond the hobbyist stage requires some specialized equipment — equipment that’s only used five or six weeks out of the year. And that equipment has to be housed somewhere. So if there’s a bit of profit left after the taxes are paid, it’s probably reinvested in the operation. The sugar content and volume of the sap run are greatly influenced by weather conditions, and you never know what you’re going to get. So with all you have invested in equipment, you might as well set some extra taps to hedge against a short season. And if last year’s run was good and you had a lot of sap, it makes sense to upgrade your evaporator, and your storage system so you have the capacity to store and process the greater volume. You see where this is going. In 2015, the 3.4 million gallons that U.S. sugarmakers produced was three times the amount produced in 1995.

You do the math. The average price received by farmers for maple syrup in 2014 was $36.40 per gallon. One tree might produce a half gallon of syrup in a season. You do the math. Most producers don’t make a living on maple syrup. More than half are people whose primary occupation is not farming. For about 80% of syrup producers, less than 25% of total household income comes from farming. These are not hobbyists, although they may have started out that way. They may belong to commodity groups that help market their products and represent their interests. But if maple syrup producers get a scrap of attention from Washington, it’s probably meant to be a punchline.

Ask about the taps. In 2015, U.S. sugarmakers set almost 12 million taps. A small operation might set 500 to 1,000 taps, up to 5,000 for a medium producer, and up to 15,000 for a few large operations. Big or small, the one question a syrup producer loves to hear is, “How many taps did you set?” Tapping is the surest sign of spring where I live. Sap runs best when daytime temperatures are in the 40s but the thermometer dips below freezing at night. There’s some guesswork and gambling on the weather, just like all farming. But here’s what tapping looks like the way my neighbors do it: One person drills the hole. The next sweeps out shavings and inserts a spile, the spout that funnels sap from the tree to the collection system. The third person taps the spile into place. And the last man hangs a sap collection bag made of heavy-duty food-grade plastic, which is mounted on a galvanized frame that hangs from the spile.

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It beats going to the beach for spring break. Unless you have a tubing system, sap has to be collected from the bags or buckets hanging on trees and transported to where it can be stored until it goes into the evaporator. According to Penn State Extension, a third to half of the labor involved in maple syrup production is tapping and sap collection. For many small producers, this is where family and friends come in. And for family and friends, this is the fun part. When the call for help comes, we gather at the sap shack and follow the tractor through the sugarbush. In a Northwoods version of American Ninja Warrior, the sapper quickly empties collection bags into 5-gallon buckets, rehangs bags on their spiles, and high-steps through snow or slogs through mud to the tractor. There, you hoist buckets to the guy who pours sap through a strainer into trailer-mounted barrels or tanks. The crew includes a fair number of gray-haired neighbors like me, especially on weekdays. But after school, on weekends and during spring break, we enjoy the company of neighborhood kids, grandkids, shirttail cousins, and others who come to join the bucket brigade and be part of this beloved tradition.

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When the barrels or tanks on the trailer are full, the crew rests and visits while a submersible pump transfers the sap we’ve gathered to a stainless steel bulk tank at the sap shack. In 2014, most of our conversations revolved around the unprecedented amount of damage squirrels were doing to sap bags. It had been a long, bitterly cold and snowy winter, and a lot of sap was lost leaking out of bags chewed by squirrels looking for a free meal. You don’t get that kind of conversation on the beach.

It’s one ingredient. Once the sap is collected and transferred into storage tanks and the sapping crew has washed its buckets and barrels, the sap is ready to be transformed into syrup. Depending on sugar content of the sap, it takes about 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup. This transformation is essentially the same process of evaporation accelerated with heat that Native Americans taught to our European ancestors when they came to this part of the world. When I first came to live Up North, my neighbors were cooking on an open evaporating pan on a wood stove. The cook stoked the fire carefully to keep the temperature just right — a delicate balance at the end of a batch, when it’s easy to burn the concentrated sugar. I’ve lost track of how many times my neighbors have upgraded their evaporation equipment and other parts of their operation, but one thing stays the same: The only ingredient that goes into the product is sap collected from maple trees growing in their sugarbush.

It’s nutritious. In Wisconsin, when you see bottles of maple syrup from a small producer for sale on the counter at the gas station or at the farmers market, it’s labeled with the name and address of the maker. In this state you don’t have to have a food processor license to make and sell your own maple syrup directly to the end consumer (as long as you don’t add any coloring, flavoring or other ingredients). You are required to process syrup in a separate kitchen from the one used to cook family meals, and that kitchen and the equipment you use must be clean. And the facility must be properly ventilated to prevent steam, condensation or exhaust air from blowing onto the syrup. But small producers who collect the raw ingredients, process, and package maple syrup for direct sales aren’t required to apply nutrition labels to their product. So you might not know what knows: Maple syrup is “more nutritious than all other common sweeteners, containing one of the lowest calorie levels, and has been shown to have healthy glycemic qualities.” Furthermore, it’s rich in minerals like calcium, manganese, potassium and magnesium, and a natural source of beneficial antioxidants. So go ahead and drizzle maple syrup over potato pancakes (guess what the other big local crop is?). You can feel good about it.

For many small producers, gathering sap is a task family and friends enjoy helping with.
For many small producers, gathering sap is a task family and friends enjoy helping with.

It’s local, and that’s special. My mom made maple syrup on our Indiana farm by dissolving white granulated sugar in water and adding a splash of imitation maple flavoring out of a bottle. My sister-in-law grew up pouring corn syrup on her flapjacks. Her sons preferred thick, dark, corn-based pancake syrups to the real maple syrup we would send to my husband’s brother (who was OK with that since he didn’t have to share the good stuff). I didn’t know the difference until I moved Up North and tasted the syrup my neighbors make. I quickly learned my own preference for the light syrup that comes from sap with high sugar content. The higher the concentration of sugar in the sap, the less water that needs to be evaporated to make syrup — which means less boiling time and, for want of a better term, a “fresher” flavor. I’ve had great dark syrup infused with the smoky flavor of the wood fire used under the evaporator, and not-so-great syrups with sour, burnt and other “off” notes. But in my opinion, nothing beats the flavor of the syrup made next door. The thing I never could quite articulate about my syrup preference made sense after I read about terrior, a French culinary term for how flavors are affected by the growing environment (soil, sun, slope, moisture, minerals, etc.). So when cottage people spend $20 for a quart of local syrup, they’re not just supporting the farmer and the community. They’re also acknowledging that this land is so unique and special you can taste it.

Grade isn’t flavor. All grades of maple syrup have the same sugar content (66-67%). So for years, grading standards have referred primarily to color, with standards varying from state to state. Last year, the USDA revised its standards. So now they’re equally confusing, but in a new way more closely aligned with international standards. As far as I can tell, grades are for people buying syrup packaged in plastic jugs instead of glass bottles. The new grade standards are determined by using a spectrophotometer to measure percent of light transmission, then applying flavor descriptors based on color to four categories of Grade A syrup:

  • U.S. Grade A Golden (delicate taste, ≥75.0 percent light transmittance (%Tc))
  • U.S. Grade A Amber (rich taste, 50.0-74.9%Tc)
  • U.S. Grade A Dark (robust taste, 25.0-49.9%Tc)
  • U.S. Grade A Very Dark (strong taste, <25.0%Tc)

That works, in theory — or in a homogeneous blend designed for compliance over flavor (more on that shortly). Because the differences in color come in a large part from the sugar content of the sap (sap, not syrup): As spring warms up, sugar content goes down and it takes longer to cook late-season sap into syrup, giving it a darker color. And that’s where the theory ends. I’m not a scientist so won’t comment on claims that boiling down more low-sugar-content sap concentrates the flavor and nutrients.

You can never have too many five gallon buckets.
You can never have too many five gallon buckets.

Every bottle tells a story. I will say that many small producers pull their taps when the sugar content of the sap drops to levels that produce what used to be called Grade B syrup. They don’t keep just keep cooking and mix that into their light Golden syrup to make an Amber blend. Most work as hard and as fast as they can to gather, evaporate and hot-pack syrup while the sap is running well. Syrup has to be 180 degrees Fahrenheit when it goes into jars for that final stage of processing — canning. It would take more storage space and more energy to store a season’s worth of syrup and blend it before bottling. So with maple syrup from a small producer, the color you see in the bottle tells you something about when the sap was gathered and made into syrup.

It’s like single-malt whiskey. When I need syrup for home or a gift, I stop at the gas station at the intersection of two state highways two miles from my house. I get to pick the bottle (and yes, I choose by color). I know who cooked and bottled the syrup. I probably helped gather the sap it was made from. That experience is not exactly the norm, though. Seventy percent of U.S. syrup consumed comes from Canada. And the majority of syrup exported from Canada comes from a Quebec co-op (some call it a cartel). In Sweet Bedfellows, Michael Lange says the coop blends their product for consistency and a reliable flavor.

“An easy parallel can be drawn to Scotch whisky, with blended whiskies being produced on a larger scale, while single malt whiskies are produced in smaller amounts. Blended whisky fans appreciate the consistency and reliability, while single malt aficionados tend to enjoy their particularities and unique aspects.”

Tell that to your foodie friends when you pass a bottle of locally made syrup whose color tells the story of sap and flavor tells the story of soil and sun.

And there I go being romantic again. It’s hard not to. And it’s hard to muster up those same warm feelings about the latest maple syrup methodology to come down the pike. In the plantation method, maple saplings are grown basically as a row crop and their tops are lopped off, capped, tubed, and put under vacuum to harvest sap. I’m wondering how that story sells at the farmers market.

Call me sappy, but I prefer my syrup light and sweet and buckets at my feet on a muddy trail through a snowy woods. But you do what you have to to pay the taxes.

Donna Kallner writes from rural northern Wisconsin, where sapping generally begins around the middle of March.

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