How Maple Syrup Gets Made – The Quick and Dirty Version

by Tig Tillinghast

This overview shows how people take the fluid in the veins of trees and concentrate it to make maple syrup. You can search this site for more specific articles on each aspect, but here it is briefly all in one place.

For some unknown reason, sugar maple trees produce much, much more sap and much sweeter sap than other trees do. The sap is the fluid that brings nutrients up to leaves, and sugars and starches back down from the leaves after they’ve done their photosynthesis magic with the sun. On days when it gets to be about 40 degrees Fahrenheit after a night of temperatures about 20 degrees Fahrenheit, sap wells up in sugar maples.

People collect some of that sap by making small holes in the sides of trees and collecting the clear liquid in buckets, or by hooking those holes up to plastic lines leading to a collection tank. As this is done during the spring’s first thaw, often with deep snow on the ground, it’s quite a bit of work.

The sap – which starts off with at about 2 percent sugar – needs to be boiled down to a higher concentration. Sugarers boil sap on a contraption called an evaporator. It consists of an arch – the bottom part that holds the fire – and the pans, the vessels sitting directly on top of the arch that contains the liquid. Through ingenious fiddling, the evaporator came to have all sorts of features and add-on devices that help increase the rate of boiling. Boiling forces water molecules to escape as steam, leaving more and more of the solution’s solids behind. When so much water has been forced out that the solution becomes 67 percent sugar, it can be called maple syrup.

(Feeding the arch, with the pan above)

At that point, the sugarmaker filters the syrup to take out certain types of tasteless solids that come out of solution and make the liquid cloudy. This is done in small operations with wool filters and in larger operations with devices called filter presses that force the fluid through sandwiches of grit between paper filters. Either way, a big sticky mess is pretty much guaranteed.

Once the syrup has been filtered, the sugarmaker grades it, comparing a small sample jar of it up against the light with some standard samples to figure out which category the final product’s color fits into.

(Grading samples. Note the samples for the year across wall.)

At this point, the syrup – while still hot enough to be sterile – might be packed into individual containers, or put up in larger bulk containers, such as barrels. A gallon of finished syrup weighs 11 pounds (the same amount of pure water weighs 8 pounds), so a barrel of syrup is quite a thing to move around. We find it most often requires the use of both hands.

Sugar farms often sell their syrup right from the roadside, or at local fairs and events. The excess gets sold to wholesalers who either pack it into their own branded bottles, or forward the bulk syrup on to food processors, restaurants and other companies that use syrup on an industrial scale.

Syrup is made in Canada and the U.S., with the American production being only about 15 percent of the whole, and that on a good year. Vermonters make about one half of the U.S. production. We here at <a href=””>Tillinghast Maple are responsible for 1/1000th of that.