Indigenous peoples living in northeastern North America were the first groups known to have produced maple syrup and maple sugar. According to aboriginal oral traditions, as well as archaeological evidence, maple tree sap was being processed into syrup long before Europeans arrived in the region.There are no authenticated accounts of how maple syrup production and consumption began, but various legends exist; one of the most popular involves maple sap being used in place of water to cook venison served to a chief. Other stories credit the development of maple syrup production to Nanabozho, Glooskap, or the squirrel. Aboriginal tribes developed rituals around sugar-making, celebrating the Sugar Moon (the first full moon of spring) with a Maple Dance. Many aboriginal dishes replaced the salt traditional in European cuisine with maple sugar or syrup.

The Algonquians recognized maple sap as a source of energy and nutrition. At the beginning of the spring thaw, they used stone tools to make V-shaped incisions in tree trunks; they then inserted reeds or concave pieces of bark to run the sap into buckets, which were often made from birch bark. The maple sap was concentrated either by dropping hot cooking stones into the buckets or by leaving them exposed to the cold temperatures overnight and disposing of the layer of ice that formed on top. While there was widespread agriculture in Mesoamerica and the Southeast and Southwest regions of the United States, the production of maple syrup is one of only a few agricultural processes in the Northeast that is not a European colonial import.

European colonists

In the early stages of European colonization in northeastern North America, local Indigenous peoples showed the arriving colonists how to tap the trunks of certain types of maples during the spring thaw to harvest the sap. André Thevet, the “Royal Cosmographer of France”, wrote about Jacques Cartier drinking maple sap during his Canadian voyages. By 1680, European settlers and fur traders were involved in harvesting maple products. However, rather than making incisions in the bark, the Europeans used the method of drilling tapholes in the trunks with augers. During the 17th and 18th centuries, processed maple sap was used primarily as a source of concentrated sugar, in both liquid and crystallized-solid form, as cane sugar had to be imported from the West Indies. 

Maple sugaring parties typically began to operate at the start of the spring thaw in regions of woodland with sufficiently large numbers of maples. Syrup makers first bored holes in the trunks, usually more than one hole per large tree; they then inserted wooden spouts into the holes and hung a wooden bucket from the protruding end of each spout to collect the sap. The buckets were commonly made by cutting cylindrical segments from a large tree trunk and then hollowing out each segment’s core from one end of the cylinder, creating a seamless, watertight container. Sap filled the buckets, and was then either transferred to larger holding vessels (barrels, large pots, or hollowed-out wooden logs), often mounted on sledges or wagons pulled by draft animals, or carried in buckets or other convenient containers. The sap-collection buckets were returned to the spouts mounted on the trees, and the process was repeated for as long as the flow of sap remained “sweet”. The specific weather conditions of the thaw period were, and still are, critical in determining the length of the sugaring season. As the weather continues to warm, a maple tree’s normal early spring biological process eventually alters the taste of the sap, making it unpalatable, perhaps due to an increase in amino acids.

The boiling process was very time-consuming. The harvested sap was transported back to the party’s base camp, where it was then poured into large vessels (usually made from metal) and boiled to achieve the desired consistency. The sap was usually transported using large barrels pulled by horses or oxen to a central collection point, where it was processed either over a fire built out in the open or inside a shelter built for that purpose (the “sugar shack”).

Since 1850

Around the time of the American Civil War, syrup makers started using large, flat sheet metal pans as they were more efficient for boiling than heavy, rounded iron kettles, because of a greater surface area for evaporation.Around this time, cane sugar replaced maple sugar as the dominant sweetener in the US; as a result, producers focused marketing efforts on maple syrup. The first evaporator, used to heat and concentrate sap, was patented in 1858. In 1872, an evaporator was developed that featured two pans and a metal arch or firebox, which greatly decreased boiling time. Around 1900, producers bent the tin that formed the bottom of a pan into a series of flues, which increased the heated surface area of the pan and again decreased boiling time. Some producers also added a finishing pan, a separate batch evaporator, as a final stage in the evaporation process.

Buckets began to be replaced with plastic bags, which allowed people to see at a distance how much sap had been collected. Syrup producers also began using tractors to haul vats of sap from the trees being tapped (the sugarbush) to the evaporator. Some producers adopted motor-powered tappers and metal tubing systems to convey sap from the tree to a central collection container, but these techniques were not widely used. Heating methods also diversified: modern producers use wood, oil, natural gas, propane, or steam to evaporate sap. Modern filtration methods were perfected to prevent contamination of the syrup.

A large number of technological changes took place during the 1970s. Plastic tubing systems that had been experimental since the early part of the century were perfected, and the sap came directly from the tree to the evaporator house. Vacuum pumps were added to the tubing systems, and preheaters were developed to recycle heat lost in the steam. Producers developed reverse-osmosis machines to take a portion of water out of the sap before it was boiled, increasing processing efficiency.

Improvements in tubing and vacuum pumps, new filtering techniques, “supercharged” preheaters, and better storage containers have since been developed. Research continues on pest control and improved woodlot management. In 2009, researchers at the University of Vermont unveiled a new type of tap that prevents backflow of sap into the tree, reducing bacterial contamination and preventing the tree from attempting to heal the bore hole. Experiments show that it may be possible to use saplings in a plantation instead of mature trees, dramatically boosting productivity per acre.

This article uses material from the Wikipedia article Maple Syrup, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License