Mid-February, I had the amazing opportunity to have an inside look on how maple syrup is made.
My family has friends who live in Jefferson, New York, in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. Our second night staying with them, their friends, The Thompsons, invited them (and by association, us) to come to their sugar shack to see their first boil of the season.
With buckets on hundreds of trees all along North Harpersfield Road, and a promise of discounted maple syrup to those whose property the trees are on, the Thompsons have made hundreds of gallons of maple syrup over the last 12 years.
The process to make maple syrup starts with collecting the sap of maple trees, from the buckets that have been filled through taps that have been hammered into the trees. The sap, after bring brought back to the sugar shack in a big water barrel, is put into a processer where it goes through a preliminary reverse-osmosis (to remove the water). It is then directed to a big wood-fired evaporator to boil off the rest of the water. The sap, now more syrupy, is then brought to two vats where the sap is tested for sugar content and boiled or not based on how high or low the [percent of sugar is. The FDA regulations call for between 65 and 68% sugar content. Once the sap is between there (the Thompsons like their maple syrup to be 67%), diatomaceous earth is put in. This does not become a part of the end product however; it is used only to coagulate to the extra particles in the syrup that aren’t wanted in the final product (dirt, bark, dust, etc.). The sap is then filtered through 26 pieces of special cloth and then is directed into 40 gallon barrels through a tube
As it is being put into the barrels, a small bottle of syrup is taken from the stream and compared to the official grade examples. There are 4 Grades: A: Golden Delicate; A: Amber Rich; A: Dark Robust; B. The grades are based upon the flavor and color of the syrup. The differences in color and flavor are determines on how early in the season the sap is collected and what tree it is collected from. B is the very darkest and has the richest taste, however you have to wait till the very end of the season to get this. The barrel that I watched being made was between Amber Rich and Dark Robust, so it was graded A: Amber Rich. We were given the opportunity to try the syrup in little cups as it was being poured into the barrel. It was sweet and light, and it was still warm from the boil.