Spring is here - Tapping into nature’s sweetness for breakfast

Whenever I have a breakfast of warm pancakes or waffles, there’s always one thing that I have with them: maple syrup. 



A couple of weekends ago, a group of friends, my sister, and myself took a little road trip and toured a couple of New Hampshire’s maple sugar houses. We saw where maple syrup came from and how it was made. It was pretty surprising and impressive that nature does all the work in creating this delicious syrup; all we have to do is harvest it, make a few adjustments to it, and then eat it!

Step 1: The Sap

The creation of maple syrup starts from the sap of a maple tree. There are various types of Maples: sugar, red, and black; but all yield the same sweet syrup we love. Maple trees usually exist in cool to temperate climates like New England. 

It is only during the early Spring, when the days are becoming warmer but the nights are still cool, that the sap from these trees is harvested; this is called the sugaring season for a lot of New Englanders. It is during this time the sap is flowing throughout the tree. The flow of sap depends entirely on temperature.

Credit to Highlight Kids

Credit to Highlight Kids

When the sap is harvested from the tree, it is not maple syrup yet. The sap from the tree is only 2% sugar. The “Rule of 86” states you need 86 gallons of this 2% sugar sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup for the breakfast table.  That's A LOT of sap extraction from trees in order to make maple syrup. 


Step 2: Tapping the Tree

A spile in a maple tree. Credit to Tama Matusoka Wong

A spile in a maple tree. Credit to Tama Matusoka Wong

In order to extract and collect the sap from the tree, the tree needs to be tapped. Tapping a tree is relatively simple: it starts by drilling a small relatively shallow hole into the tree. Once a hole is drilled, sap will usually start flowing from the tree. A spile is then inserted into tree to have the sap flow out of the tree into the iconic buckets you see associated with maple trees. After waiting a while, those buckets will be filled with the tree sap. 

Step 3: From Sap to Syrup

Once enough sap is collected from the trees, the sap is brought to the sugar house for boiling. As the sap boils, the water evaporates, and the sap becomes denser and sweeter.

Many sugar houses use an evaporator to speed up the boiling and maple syrup making process. According to the University of Vermont Libraries and the Agriculture Network Information Center, a small evaporator may boil 25 gallons of sap per hour, while a large evaporator may boil 380 gallons per hour.

Finally, you have the star of pancakes and waffles: maple syrup!

Grades of maple syrup in New Hampshire

There are many grades of maple syrup; this is dependent on when the sap is harvested.  Lighter syrup is made earlier in the season and darker syrup is made later. As it gets warmer, the tree itself goes through metabolic and chemical changes as they go from winter to spring. These changes can cause differences in maple syrup flavor. The differentiation or the “grading system” for maple syrup is different depending on what state the maple syrup is made but it’s all relatively similar.

The grading system of maple syrup harvested in New Hampshire is as follows:

Grade A Light Amber: What makes maple syrup this grade is it’s usually harvested in the early Spring. It has a delicate light maple flavor.

Grade A Medium Amber: When the maple season progresses, the color of the sap and syrup darkens. It’s richer in maple flavor. This is the typical grade of maple syrup that is poured over pancakes.

Grade A Dark Amber: This grade has a stronger, more robust maple flavor than previous; common to use in cooking.

Grade B: This is harvested towards the end of the season.  It is darkest grade and has a strong maple flavor. It is primarily used in cooking. 

After touring the maple sugar houses, I have a new-found appreciation for the effort that is put into making this sweet breakfast delicacy. It truly is amazing what nature offers us not only during the Spring (because of their maple syrup), but all year-around.

Here are some photos from my experience touring New Hampshire's maple sugar houses. 

Top left to right: Helen in front of maple sugaring house; Tapped tree From bottom left to right: Sap flowing from maple tree; An evaporator boiling the sap, making maple syrup. Credit to Amy Cheng

Top left to right: Helen in front of maple sugaring house; Tapped tree
From bottom left to right: Sap flowing from maple tree; An evaporator boiling the sap, making maple syrup.
Credit to Amy Cheng

Wow! this is the third food post! Ive written. Im really hungry, folks. Check out my other food-related science posts! 

>> "What made the popcorn go pop?"
>> "A "crunch-ification" revelation"

Check out other Spring posts from my fellow contributors! 
Sara's "The Writing is in the Water"

Maple Syrup UVM Libraries and Agriculture Network Information Center: http://library.uvm.edu/maple/faq/

The New Hampshire Maple Experience: http://nhmapleexperience.com/nh_syrup.php