Last weekend we were able to take a tour of Snow’s Sugarbush, in Mason, during maple syrup season. Snow’s is a family run business that has been going strong for 40 years. Their maple syrup is a mainstay of the Ann Arbor Farmers Market and our cupboard at home.
A sugarbush is a grove of trees dominated by the Sugar maple (Acer saccharum – one guess as to which word means sugar). Sugar maples are so named because they have the highest sugar content and thus are the best to tap to make maple syrup.
As with so many things we eat (artichokes, oysters, truffles) I wonder about the many failed attempts that happened when boiling down tree sap into something palatable. But that is another story.
Tapping trees for syrup was a Native American tradition that soon caught on with the settlers. When the spring days hit 45 to 50 degrees and are 20 degrees at night, there is enough temperature fluctuation for the sap to start “running.”
From my Master Gardener class I know the sap begins to move against gravity because suction is formed by the heat on the stems, creating an evaporation vacuum that pulls up liquid and nutrients from the roots. As long as the temperature keeps shifting the tree will continue to pull liquid up from the roots. That liquid is 97.75 percent water and 2.25 percent sugar.
According to Uncle Sam, maple syrup has to contain 66.7 percent sugar. The general rule of thumb is that it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. There are several ways to reduce the amount of water – mostly depending on the amount of sap you have.
If I were to drill a 2 ½ inch hole into the sugar maple in my back garden, put a tap in it, a pail under the tap, and a cover to keep the rain out, I could probably collect about 10 gallons over the course of the 6 week season. 10 gallons would boil down to about one quart of finished maple syrup.
If, however, I am dealing with two large sugarbushes and nearly 80,000 pails tapped into trees all over the neighborhood, like Snow’s Sugarbush operation, the process would be more complex. The newest innovation adopted by the Snow family is the use of a vacuum generator and lines running from the trees instead of pails. The two sugarbushes behind their barns do not have pails attached to the trees. Rather, it is a cobweb of connecting blue tubes that move the sap under the ground and directly into the evaporator machine via an vacuum.
When sap arrives at the processing area, the first stop it makes is to the evaporating reverse osmosis machine that removes 75 percent of the water. The reduced liquid is then boiled. Here is a video of Matt Snow describing the boiling process.
Once the syrup reaches the 66.6 percent sugar content, it is then graded into different categories. The color variations and mineral content are completely dependent upon the tree, and there is a lot of yearly variation. There are four grades of syrup: light amber, medium amber, dark amber and Grade B. Due to the popularity of the detoxifying diet, The Master Cleanse, Grade B syrup has become much more desired in the last 10 years.
Snow’s Sugarbush also makes maple cream, maple sugar and maple cream candies. They serve breakfast all day long during the season, and you can enjoy their syrup on top of French toast, waffles, pancakes and sausage. It is a beautiful outing on a sunny weekend day and a nice seasonal reminder of the earth waking up for spring.