To tap a maple tree, watch the sap come forth and then boil in steamy vats, is to begin a love affair. Perhaps it’s witnessing the simplicity of the process, called “sugaring,” and then tasting the finished product out in the crisp air of the Eastern woods. Maybe it’s discovering that this is how virtually all maple syrup is made, by small farmers dedicated to the time-honored traditions that haven’t been replaced by technology. But rising consumer sales demonstrate you don’t need to tap a maple tree to be seduced by this storied American treat.
Maple syrup can be derived from any maple tree given the right weather conditions—freezing nights followed by warm days—but the sap from the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is most often used. These maples store sugar in their roots, which then becomes available in their sap for several weeks in early spring. This is the only time that maple sap for syrup can be harvested. A shallow hole is made in the tree and a spout is inserted, allowing the sap to flow into buckets or hoses. The sap is then boiled down in large, shallow evaporators into syrup. Nothing is added.
Demand for maple syrup is strong. 2009 was the largest production year for Vermont, the U.S.’s biggest maple syrup producer, since 1944, according to Catherine Stevens, marketing director for the Vermont Maple Syrup trade association.
Why the increase in demand? “Maple syrup is 100 percent natural, and there is obviously an increased interest in natural products. And maple syrup contains calcium, other minerals and antioxidants,” Stevens says. More consumers also want “designation of origin” products—those that guarantee where they are from and often have clearly defined manufacturing processes. And then there are the gourmets, always hungry for new twists on classic ingredients. But for others, it’s simply the lore.
But unlike many traditional products, maple syrup lore is not the stuff of days gone by. Most maple farmers and sugarers operate much like their predecessors. They manage maple tree farms, often rather small and deep in the woods, and then sell their sap to small-time sugarers who boil it down in large vats in small wooden sheds called sugar houses. From there it’s sold to manufacturers who bottle and distribute it.
Many maple syrup finished-product manufacturers are working to keep this tradition alive. Arnold Coombs of Coombs Family Farms in Brattleboro, Vt., is among them. Coombs grew up with the distinctive sweetness of maple syrup on his tongue and the scent of boiling sap tickling his nose; sugaring goes back in his family at least seven generations. “My grandmother says that the first sugaring ancestor that we could prove on both sides was from 1845,” he says.
Coombs spent his childhood weekends helping his family pack maple sugar candy or working in the maple gift shop or sugar house. Today, he continues to immerse himself in maple syrup as the general manager of Coombs Family Farms and Bascom Farms in Alstead, N.H. He focuses much of his time on organic production. “Essentially, [organic certification] ensures the consumer is getting a clean product, that from the farm to the table there are systems in place to track quality,” Coombs says.
To obtain organic certification for maple syrup, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program rules are applied in various ways. For example, maple trees must be farmed with an approved forest management plan that promotes tree health. Health taps—spouts that are smaller in diameter than conventional varieties—are required for tapping because they allow trees to heal in about half the time compared to standard tapping. Trees are examined for over-tapping and the maple syrup storing and bottling processes are monitored more closely for safety and cleanliness.
Many American pure maple syrup bottlers work with small farmers who want to produce enough sap to earn a living or to make it a worthwhile second job. Coombs offers farmers in need preseason equipment credits. “We’ll get calls like ‘I can tap my 2,000 trees but I don’t have the equipment,’” he says. “So we’ll give them money up front to buy the equipment, even when the banks don’t, and they pay us back in syrup in the spring.”
Although maple syrup goes with pancakes (and waffles and French toast) like peanut butter goes with jelly, it is breaking out of the breakfast nook. “One of our distributers visits bars in New York City to work with mixologists to create maple syrup-infused drinks,” says Jim MacIsaac, owner of maple syrup producer Highland Sugarworks in Websterville, Vt.
Savory items on restaurant menus featuring maple syrup increased by 20 percent in the past year, according to Restaurant News. “Because maple syrup is by nature a locally produced, seasonal item, it’s very much in keeping with the locavore movement embraced by so many chefs these days—which makes it perfect as a trendy ingredient,” says Merrill Stubbs, a New York Times food writer and cookbook author. It is replacing other sweeteners in sauces and salad dressings. “I use it all the time in autumn and winter salad dressings instead of honey or sugar to cut the acid. It gives a lovely, rich, mellow sweetness to the vinaigrette,” Stubbs says.
If you’re looking to sell more maple syrup, offer deli items like maple-glazed tofu or chicken or feature it in salad dressings. Display pure maple syrup at the deli along with recipe cards—syrup manufacturers will often supply these if you ask.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires any product labeled maple syrup to be made from 100 percent maple tree sap. Many syrups on the market, though, don’t actually contain any maple sap and are instead sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. These must be labeled as “pancake syrup” or “table syrup”.