The Maple Syrup Harvest
My interpretation of the maple syrup harvest was drilling into trees and allowing its sweet, thick maple goodness to seep out. I believed that I could just put my lips to any maple trunk and suck hard enough to siphon out syrup. So when I saw the tapping of my first tree and tasted what came out I was curious to learn how maple syrup is actually made. And lucky me, typically the harvest is between March and April so we were in time for the season.
Frenchy’s family owns two maple trees on their property. Two trees that required many years to grow to this size. Today the weather was nice enough and the trees large enough that his father began the harvesting process. He tapped the tree to find the ideal point to puncture. A handheld drill broke through the tree’s bark and a “tap” was inserted in this gap. Typically the tap is a specially created metal piece, but as you can see a finger’s length of plastic tubing works just as well. Gravity helps you gather the sap towards the bottom of the tree and the tube directs it all into your bucket hanging below. This clear liquid dripping drop after drop is essentially sweetened water. Tasting it, there isn’t much to it, as this is just the first step to achieving actual maple syrup. The sap will eventually be boiled down to evaporate its water content, and what is left is the sugar we know as maple syrup. This whole bucket full of sap will only result in a tablespoon’s worth of actual maple syrup. A lengthly and worth while process we would get to see at an actual sugar shack.
Frenchy’s father brought us to his friend’s property. He is one of many farmers privately harvesting maple syrup. Their finished products get sold to a federation of producers and distributed to various brands of maple syrup to use as their own. His property is located in the Quebec country side. Where large acres of farm land are still frozen and large sheets of snow still blanketed the ground. It was a bumpy ride over cracked pavement that eventually turned into muddy roads. Luckily we came in a pickup and ATV. The latter with its loose suspension allowed us to enjoy the scenic view whist crusting at a top speed of 100kmh.
The weather is still brisk so the proper outerwear is required. I was dressed to the nines of warmth with a set of down over alls and matching jacket. It is as heavy as it looks and as awkward as you imagine it to be because of the bulk. Proper boots are waterproof and fleeced lined, making them ideal for both snow and mud. And as we were traveling by ATV, and as it is required by law, a helmet finished off my outdoorsy look. I was ready for the cold and the dirt that country life would throw at me.
Driving out I realized that every realistic painting depicting Quebec in winter was true. White as far as the eye can see, punctuated with mountain tops and slender pole-like trees. Dirt roads, and still clearings, and every now and again a wood cabin. After a rough and messy ride we found ourselves at this privately own sugar shack for an exclusive showing of how their day to day operations during maple syrup season. We were going to get a guided tour that not many could enjoy.
Our tour began the pumping station. A separate shack where all the sap from all the maple trees converge. The farmer own over 3000 maple trees just on this property. He had another piece of land with even more trees a little further out. Each tree is connected with blue tubing. A maze of trees and plastic often indicates the presence of a sugar shack nearby. The tubes are how the sap travels. A vacuum system sucks the sap to this shack. This is the modern maple tapping system. Gone are the single taps on a single trees and the individual buckets under them. Although traditional and great for show, it isn’t the most economical way to harvest sap. Therefore you may still see buckets and taps present at sugar shacks for aesthetics.
The pumping station is centred around this blue machine. It has seven cords vacuuming sap from over thousands of maple trees. Each cord takes in sap from 250 trees at a time. The liquid pools from section to section and eventually gets dumped into the large tub below. Once enough sap gathers at the bottom of the tub it is then suctioned to the main sugar shack, where it gets filtered for the first time. The pumping machine requires a daily cleaning as sap has sugar, and when sugar crystallizes it can jam up the machinery. Despite the process being automated it still requires overseeing. To ensure all the mechanics are in working order and the flow is being maintain, a farmer can spend up to 14-16 hours a day tending to his maple syrup production. Therefore during the few months of the maple syrup harvest a farmer is here everyday. A small price to pay for a pretty decent reward.
The sugar shack was what I imagined it to be, a cozy cabin in the woods. In the beginning it was probably someone’s summer home, a comfy place to bring the kids to, to enjoy fresh air at and have the ability to stretch their legs within. A home passed down from generation to generation, surviving all the elements Mother Nature threw at it. You could definitely tell the age of the place. This wasn’t the Ritz. A row of rocking chairs by the vats and a separate warm room upfront spoke of the time dedicated to the place, comfortable seating and a warm kitchen to cook out of were necessities. I immediately noticed a few hallmarks of Canadian life present: snowshoes, shovels, and logs for burning in real fires. It was everything I envision a cabin out in the Canadian woods would be.
In the same room was also where the rest of the equipment needed to finish the maple syrup process was. Now that the fresh sap has been pumped to the main sugar shack it passes a filtering system before pooling into a second vat. Here the liquid drips through a semi permeable bag. Any loose debris is captured in this cloth and the sap is what gathers at the bottom. Not that the sap was very dirty to begin with. I have drank sap straight from a tree and it is as refreshing as water and as sweet tomatoes. From here the filtered sap is pumped into a separator where majority of the water content is removed. This process leaves the sap 30% sweeter. This sweeter and now smaller pool of liquid is then funnelled into a boiler. A multi walled maze that heats the sap. The water travels weaving around heated barriers, getting hotter and hotter. More than half of the syrup’s water content evaporates on its journey through.
After, it flows slowly through a channel connecting the boiler with a final vat. The goal here is to achieve a 66% syrup consistency. A process that starts with 3 gallons of sap now ends here with a single gallon of maple syrup. We were privileged enough to get a taste of the sap through each of the above processes. How it gets sweeter and thicker, until it is fit to be called maple syrup. Having tried the real deal maple syrup straight from the farm, I can now see why my partner puts such a large emphasis on real maple syrup. Why he only wants real maple syrup from Quebec. It just tastes better. The depth of flavour is one you can’t find in ordinary grocery stores and one you can’t buy from Aunt Jemima. Yes it costs more but the price is certainly worth it. You are definitely getting what you paid for here.
Although the conclusion of maple syrup is official, its story does not end here. At this point the syrup is so thick and so sticky that in order to bottle it, it needs to be pressed in. This device does just that. Though unfortunately without any syrup ready for this stage we were just walked through the process and told to use our imagination.
This has been quite the experience, one that I don’t think most people get to enjoy, nor is it one I will get to duplicate. I come out of this with a new found appreciation for maple syrup producers. The time it takes to perfect the batch and the difference time and quality adds to the taste. Go buy real maple syrup! Make sure its says made in Quebec!