A history of sugaring

Native AmericansA history of sugaring

We use a lot of interesting technology in our sugaring work today...

...but before all that was developed. How did those who came before us even come up with the crazy idea of turning tree sap into something as sweet and delicious as maple syrup.

Let's explore a bit of myth and legend...along with some interesting history and look back into the history of sugaring. 

OK...so there’s a lot of technology used in modern sugaring operations. Evaporators are large multi-chambered containers designed to speed up the cooking process. Reverse Osmosis (RO) machines extract pure water to increase sugar levels to reduce cooking time. Filter presses provide significant improvements to product clarity and taste. Ultraviolet (UV) devices extend both sap shelf life and product quality. And water jacket canning containers provide a very even heating facility to improve the final product.  Yep – that’s a lot of technology…

…which begs the question: where did all this begin? Before ROs, UVs and Canners how did those who came before us figure out how to make maple syrup? The answer is – nobody really knows. What follows are a couple of legends, maybe a myth or two and some interesting history one can have a bit more confidence in.

Indian at treeStarting at the myth end of all this, our personal favorite involves a character named Nenawbozhoo. Legend says that Bozo (we’re pretty sure that’s what his friends called him) found that his people were getting lazy and spending all their time enjoying sweet maple syrup right out of the tree. Because he was concerned with their work ethic (or lack thereof) he cast a spell over the maple trees which added water to the sap…thereby requiring Bozo’s people to work a bit to enjoy their sweet life.

Moving forward an era or two (if not an epoch) we find the story of Moqua…a Native American fixing dinner for her husband. As her venison started to boil she ran out of water and in a pinch, Moqua filled the pot with maple tree sap she had on hand. In an hour or so the venison is done and…what might that sticky stuff be in the bottom of the pot? Why, it’s maple syrup of course. You gotta think her husband said, “Hey Moq (that’s surely what he called her) we need to add this in the rotation!!!” (Ok – we’re making some of this up…but before you ask why Moqua had sap on hand, there’s a related legend where an Indian chief throws his tomahawk into a tree and finds maple sap on the ground the next morning…so let’s say Moqua’s husband is indeed that Chief. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.)

As best one can tell from historical archaeological research, Moqua-like folks were pretty creative and over time developed a couple of ways of to make maple syrup…or something in that direction. One method involved freezing the sap and removing the ice that formed on top. Since the ice would be pure water, the remaining liquid would have higher sugar concentrations…so do this enough and you’ll get a sweeter and sweeter solution. Maybe not maple syrup as we know it today…but probably a lot better than drinking out of the stream, eh?

And while we’re exploring freezing sap as a possibility, there is another theory that Native Americans discovered the goodness of sweet maple sap when they came across a broken maple tree branch with a frozen “sapsicle”. You might find a sap icicle in the woods still today.

Sap from branchA related Iroquois legend says that one of the younger members of their community watched a squirrel run up a maple tree and bite off a twig…and then lick the sap off the twig. When the youngster tried the same, he found the sap was sweet. In support of this, Canadians have observed red squirrels running around from maple tree to maple tree nipping and creating deep wounds. After the wounds have exuded some sap, the squirrels return and eat the sugar crystals. In support of this theory we can attest to those pesky squirrels nibbling on our sap lines as well.

While we’re talking about it, just drinking maple tree sap is actually done all over the world. From Japan to Northern China and points well beyond, many cultures enjoy the sap in its natural state. They don’t bother cooking it down to what we know as maple syrup. Natural sap is especially popular in South Korea where it is known as “gorosoe”. It is valued for its taste and health benefits…and some say for its hangover benefits but we can’t attest to anything like that of course. There are a lot of folks right here in the US that enjoy a good “sweet water” drink from time to time…carbonated or not. Next time you visit the farm we’ll try to have some on hand for you to try.

Moving forward with the idea of maple syrup as we know it, the more industrious folks – probably with a more advanced sweet tooth – developed the process of adding hot rocks to a wooden container of maple sap causing the sap to boil. As the sap boils, water evaporates and sugars concentrate. Again, do this enough and you’ll get something in the neighborhood of maple syrup. Toss in a few more hot rocks and you’d probably end up with a maple sugar. Sounds like a lot of work but the archaeological record suggests this indeed was going on and frankly, we’re impressed with both the creativity and patience.

An important note here is that these early folks were probably more interested in maple sugar than syrup. Maple syrup requires a container to store it in while sugar is much easier to store and transport. Early sugaring operations made different kinds of maple sugar. Their maple grain sugar would look something like our brown sugar of today. They also made a cake sugar that was formed in blocks or cakes…and finally, they made a wax sugar that was actually an extra thick syrup. This emphasis on sugar (vs syrup) starts to make even more sense when you consider the buildings where this is done are called “sugar shacks” and the whole process is called “sugaring”.Camp

Sugar or syrup, history tells us that Native American’s shared their appreciation of maple sweetness with the first Europeans. Personally I’m thinking it made a very nice glaze on that first turkey…but I might be making that up. Anyway, as they are prone to do the first settlers took the idea and ran with it. They improved the sap extraction process from tomahawk cuts to boring holes in the maple trees and collecting sap in buckets. They built larger and larger sugar camps that were dedicated to the art of sugaring once a year. In the 1860s folks moved from large round cooking vessels to a “flat pan” approach that increased the heating surface. The first evaporator was actually patented way back in 1858. In 1872 we see the first multi-chambered evaporator in use. Sugaring was big business back in the day. In 1860 records suggest the US produced 40 million pounds of maple sugar and 1.6 million gallons of syrup.

Another important transitional note: in 1890 the import tax on cane sugar was lifted making cane sugar less expensive than maple sugar. From that point forward, sugaring operations in the US began to focus more on the production of maple syrup.

As you would imagine this drove further advancements in the process. For example, in the early 1900s you’ll find flues (i.e., channels in the bottom of the evaporator) in use to further increase an evaporator’s heating surface and evaporator efficiency.  The collection process has also seen significant advancements as we have moved from buckets to vacuum line systems. Today the industry is largely focused on a technology similar to what we use here at Springboro Tree Farms. Because we’re blessed with some good ol’ rolling Indiana countryside, we use a 3/16 inch plastic tubing system powered by gravity. The system we use is relatively new having been perfected in the last 10 to 15 years. If you’re a large producer you’re more likely using an electrically powered pumping system running on one-inch main lines (like ours) but fed by a larger 5/16 tubing system running through your sugarbush.  And looking into the future a bit, today folks are actually exploring ways to extract sap from sugar maple saplings (vs full grown trees).

Bottom line: who knows where it all began…and who knows where it’s going…but we’re sure enjoying the ride and we hope you do too.