What's Your Nature?

Become a Nature Up North explorer to share your encounters with wild things and wild places in New York's North Country. Post your wildlife sightings, landscape shots, photos from your outings, and even your organization's events!

From Tree to Topping: The Journey of Maple Syrup to Your Pancakes

By Nela Chestojanova

Picture yourself wandering through a forest in early spring, the air crisp with the promise of warmer days ahead. Amidst the trees, something magical is happening – the sap is flowing, marking the beginning of the sweet journey from tree to topping. Join me to uncover the delightful process of making maple syrup, from forest to breakfast table.

Upon arriving in the North Country in August last year, I recall one of the very first meals I had was pancakes for breakfast topped up with something my friend referred to as ‘Liquid Gold’. Coming from a Mediterranean country I have had the chance to try maple syrup maybe once or twice, but I could not recall the exact taste. Yet this time the rich aroma stayed with me for a very long time.

Tap, Tap is there anybody home?

The sugaring season begins in the North Country in early February and lasts up to mid-March or in this season (Spring 2024) likely to extend into Early April as the weather permits. 

Two months before the sugaring season, Maple producers go out in the forest and drill holes in the Maple trees, any Maple tree can give you Maple Syrup but it’s the Sugar Maple and Red Maple that are predominant in this area. These trees also have a higher sugar content in their sap, making them more efficient and therefore preferred for making syrup. 

Holes are drilled in the tree bark and between 1 and 3 taps are inserted depending on how big the Maple tree is. 

If you have ever gotten a chance to walk through a maple stand in the North Country during syrup season, you will know that it looks like a long spider web connecting them from one tree to another.

Sap before Syrup

You might already be familiar with the process of photosynthesis, which allows plants and trees to perform a chemical reaction that converts the natural sunlight into energy for the plant in the form of sugar stored in the plant roots. Trees will use this sugar in multiple ways, but once spring arrives and the temperatures increase, the tree’s wood expands allowing the sap to flow from the branches into the the trunk and also into the previously installed taps in the tree bark. Unlike most hardwood trees that store sap in the roots for the winter, maple trees store it in the branches. Once the temperature drops, the sap is sucked from the roots into the branches by a strong internal pressure, like the pipes in our house when we turn on the faucet. When temperatures start to warm during the day, the wood of the tree thaws and expands, allowing the sap to flow back down through the trunk to the roots. This is when we pull the sap from the tree with taps. 

So what makes a good season for sap? A slow freeze as winter begins. The longer it takes for the tree to freeze, the more sap it can cram into its upper limbs, and the more sap that drains in the spring.

Sugar Shack Motorway

Not so long ago the collection process was quite simple and involved a bucket hanging next to the tree, which would have been emptied into a bigger bucket and brought to the sugar shack for boiling.

Nowadays Maple Producers insert special taps in the tree trunks making a network of a tubbing system in the forest that resembles a spider web from one tree to the other. All of them are directed to an even larger pipe that brings this fresh sap to the sugar shack.

Boiling Down: Understanding the Evaporation Process

Once the sap is collected, the next step is reducing its water content to concentrate the sugars and achieve that rich maple flavor we all love. In the sugarhouse, the sap is poured into large, shallow pans and heated over a wood-fired evaporator. As the sap boils, steam rises, leaving behind the liquid gold we know as maple syrup.

Originally, sap contains about 96% water and 4% sugar. Through the boiling process, this ratio changes dramatically. It takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup. This reduction concentrates the sugars, intensifying the flavor and giving maple syrup its characteristic sweetness.

Debulking the Myth

Contrary to popular belief that darker color maple syrup has a higher quality, the color of maple syrup doesn't necessarily indicate its quality. It's more about taste preference. Maple syrup comes in various grades, ranging from light to dark, each offering its unique flavor profile. Lighter syrups tend to have a more delicate taste, while darker ones boast a richer, more robust flavor. Exploring these different grades can be a fun and flavorful experience for the whole family.

Sustainable Syrup

Maple syrup production not only yields a delicious product but also plays a crucial role in sustainable forest management. Unlike other forms of agriculture that require clear-cutting or extensive land use, tapping maple trees for syrup production can enhance forest health. Properly managed maple forests provide habitat for wildlife, protect soil and water quality, and sequester carbon dioxide, mitigating climate change. By supporting local maple producers who practice sustainable forestry, you're not just enjoying a tasty treat—you're also helping to preserve our precious natural resources for generations to come.


Have You Ever Tried Maple Snow?

Here's a fun and easy DIY activity to try with your family!

1. Shave ice into "snow" using a grater or snow cone machine.

2. Pour a strip of maple syrup across the top of the snow.

3. Place a popsicle stick at one end.

4. Before the syrup freezes completely, roll it up around the stick to create a delicious maple syrup popsicle. It's a sweet and refreshing treat that's sure to delight kids and adults alike!

5. Enjoy your roll-up of maple snow!


Maple Snow (photo credit: Sugar on Snow - Gastro Obscura (atlasobscura.com))


By Nela Chestojanova