Making maple syrup brings people together
ESCANABA — Making maple syrup brings families to woodlands in productive ways. The idea of spending time reducing sap to syrup attracts many, both in the production and the consumption. The season is short. The memories are not.
Sugar maple has become Michigan’s most common tree species, by volume. It grows in every county, although the north is where the vast bulk of these well-known trees live. Worldwide, sugar maple logs and lumber are highly sought after and carry good pricing. However, to many, it’s the sweet syrup that carries the day.
While syrup can be made from other tree species, such as red maple or paper birch, it’s the sugar maple that has the highest sugar content, thus requires less sap per gallon of syrup. Rule of thumb is about 40 gallons of sap to a gallon of syrup, more or less.
In the United States, Vermont, New York, and Maine dominate the market. However, according to agricultural statistics, it is Quebec that drives the business. The U.S. imports more maple syrup than it produces, and most of that is from Quebec.
Michigan produces around 65,000 gallons of syrup each year, sometimes a lot more and sometimes a lot less. So much depends upon the spring weather. It’s hard to pin down an exact date of when the syrup season begins, but for much of Michigan, it’s during that last week of February. The season might run just a few days or it might run a couple of weeks. The tail of the season is typically more variable than the head of the season.
Generally, a good sign of the season onset is when the Canada geese return. By April, the season is pretty much over, except for some of the processing, perhaps.
The basic idea in making syrup is to gather the sap and remove most of the water. Trees are tapped, meaning a hole is drilled and a small “tap” is inserted. From this tap, sap will flow into either buckets or a plastic tube.
Traditionally, full buckets are regularly retrieved from the trees. Deep snow years make this a physical challenge! Sap is then poured into a large storage barrel of some sort. When enough sap is available, a large shallow pan is nearly filled and the slow boil over a wood fire begins.
In the meantime, fun can be had around the camp.
Commercially, the woods are filled with an interconnected web of plastic tubes that feed sap into a large vat, via either gravity or a slight negative pressure. Rather than sitting around a fire, a reverse osmosis device removes most of the water, then the remainder is boiled over a propane burner until just the right sugar content is reached.
Those who use a wood fire for either the entire process or to “finish-off” the syrup often claim the smoke imparts a slight flavor that appeals to many.
Either way, the taste is great!
Old-timers use their fingertips to tell when the syrup is just right. Most others use a device called a hydrometer. When about 1.37 grams sugar per milliliter is achieved, the syrup is ready, or about 66 to 68 percent sugar. There are various scales with different measurement units, the common might be what is called the “Brix” scale.
Additionally, syrup is often graded on the color, from pale amber to dark brown. Some say the color reflects a different taste. Others claim that it’s simply a color difference.
Commercially, prices can run from $30 to $70 per gallon. Annually, Canada and the United States produce about 15 million gallons. However, there’s a large amount of production that is not reflected in the official statistics. So, it can be difficult to track the true number of gallons.
For those who produce maple syrup as a hobby, there’s a lot of enjoyment. And as far as these sugarbushes are concerned, that’s what it’s all about.
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As an MSU Extension forester, Bill Cook provides educational programming for the entire Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Forest Biomass Innovation Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres.