Sunday, February 20, 2011
Maple Sugar Season...Yum!
Well, it is that time again! Maple sugar season is here! This is the time when maple sugar farmers and anyone who wants to extract sap from maple sugar trees and turn it into maple syrup can do so. This time, from around mid February to late March, early April, sap from maple sugar trees is “tapped” from the trees to be collected and evaporated into consumable, yummy, maple syrup! I work at the Hudson Highlands Nature Museum in Cornwall, NY, and we hold maple sugar tours to the public to show and teach them how to tap trees to extract sap from maple sugar trees and turn it into maple syrup. Yesterday was the first day of the public maple sugar tours. Many people do not realize, but maple syrup and the syrup many people buy from the grocery stores (Mrs. Butter-worth’s, Log Cabin) is not at all the same. Therefore, although maple syrup is more expensive than the “pancake lotion,” or syrup such as Mrs. Butter-worth’s, it is much healthier and better for you overall. The reason it is so much more expensive is because it takes about 40gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup! Maple sugar farmers only have about 6 weeks to do so; therefore, this process is very labor intensive.
One question I often hear from people is when do we tap maple sugar trees? Well, all trees produce sap; they are autotrophs (produce their own food). Sap is about 98% water and 3% sugar, and sap is produced for food for the tree to grow through a process known as photosynthesis. Trees require sunlight, CO2 , and water and transform these reactants into food, sugar water (sap). Each leaf on a tree can be thought of as a small sugar factory, and in addition to the photosynthesis that is occurring, a process known as transpiration is also occurring, in which water is transpired from the leaves into the atmosphere. Therefore, when fall is approaching and water will soon be frozen in the ground and less accessible the tree stops photosynthesis in the leaves, the leaves die, fall off, and the tree prevents the further loss of water. The sugar water (sap) begins to move to the roots to be stored as starch, as well. Therefore, there is a specific season (Feb-late March) that is optimal for collecting sap from trees for production of maple syrup. During these months, below freezing temperatures and above freezing (40 degrees around) temperatures during the day promote sap flow. The tree expands in warm temperatures, and through capillary action, draws the sap from the roots up to the branches again getting ready to sprout new buds in the spring. Maple sugar farmers take advantage of this time to extract the sap that is flowing up from the roots up into the tree.
Why do we tap sugar maple trees for sap and not, for example, oak trees? Since all trees produce sap, we can certainly tap any tree (during this time of the year) for sap. However, sugar maple trees produce the highest percentage of sugar in their sap than other trees or other maples in general. Oak trees only have about .5% sugar and 99.5% water in their sap. Also, we want syrup that has the flavor of maple, and not oak!
How do we make maple syrup from the sap we collect? The sap is put into an evaporator to evaporate the water from the sap to be left with sugar. A tool known as the hydrometer is used to test the density of the syrup to see if it needs to be evaporated more or less.