The brave new world of Maple Syrup
Maple syrup was flowing long before there were giant maple operations, a maple syrup marketing board and giant surpluses waiting in warehouses to be stolen. The Abenaki Indians who lived here, first learned to make a maple syrup-like substance by tapping maple trees in late winter and early spring. For the Abenaki, maple trees produced a natural sweetener long before there was sugar.
Early farmers, well into the 20th century, used the maple syrup season to earn money to buy seeds for the spring planting season. The process started with cleaning up fallen trees in the maple bush and cutting them into usable lengths for the boiler. Long before there were pipelines and fancy reverse osmosis technology, a hole was drilled into the sugar maple tree with a 7/8 inch auger at a slight angle, and a spile was driven in. Depending on its girth, there might be more than one to a tree. The spile was fashioned so a bucket could hang on it, and there was a hat for the bucket to keep out debris like bits of bark. The farmer would go around with a horse- drawn sleigh; tractors would get stuck in the snow, emptying the buckets and bringing the sap back to the sugar house. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. The average tree produces just a litre, or around a quarter of a gallon. It was hard work, and the fire had to be constantly tended, the temperature and consistency tested, finishing off the maple syrup at the precise moment.
All the gear, the boiler, the pan and the faucets to draw off the final product was made locally in those days, at small operations in Dunham and Waterloo.
Even as late as thirty years ago, many local farmers produced syrup the old way, tapping several hundred to a few thousand trees. Now there are giant maple forests with tens of thousands of taps, sap collected by pipeline and some water pulled out before boiling by something called reverse osmosis. Don’t ask.
Many small producers have left the maple syrup world, though some hardy souls remain. New technology and filling out forms defeated them. Quebec, of course, is still the OPEC of the maple syrup world, producing 72% of total production. It’s a billion-dollar business. The syrup still tastes the same, but the romance has gone out of sitting in the sugar house patient.