The person who said "money doesn't grow on trees" must not have known that a gallon of real Grade A maple syrup runs about $35.
Then again, the thick, sweet, amber stuff of morning pancakes and waffles doesn't exactly just pour out of maple trees. Sap does, though, and it's pouring out now wherever there are maples and the weather is right.
The clear, watery, faintly sweet sap of maple trees - mostly sugar maples - must be collected, boiled (a lot), and filtered before you'd recognize the golden-brown syrup you may have eaten at the table.
Making maple syrup isn't just for the pros. Today, Stan Zawalick of Northampton, Mass., taps 2,000 trees and boils up to 20,000 gallons of sap a season. But he began "sugaring" as a boy with just a couple of buckets, a wheelbarrow, and a washtub. (See story on page 23 on how to tap your own trees for syrup.)
Maple trees can be found in many parts of the world. But because the sap will only flow under certain weather conditions, maple syrup is only made in parts of the northern United States and Canada.
The few weeks when the tail of winter overlaps with the early start of spring is the sugaring season. Below-freezing nights and above-freezing days cause pressure to build inside the tree, and the sap flows.
Sap may begin to run in mid-February, but it flows most heavily in March. In April, when the buds on the trees start to bulge, the sap will begin to dry up. It will also begin to have a bitter flavor.
Native Americans were the first to discover maple sugar. (Boiling syrup further creates sugar, which keeps longer and is easier to store.) Numerous legends tell how this "sweet nectar of spring" was discovered.
One tale says a man threw a tomahawk at a tree. The gash oozed sap, which collected in a bark bucket. Thinking it was water, the man's wife used the sap for boiling venison. The maple-flavored meat was delicious! They began making maple sugar by dropping hot rocks into hollowed-out logs or low-fired clay pots filled with sap.
In other parts of the world, birch trees are tapped for their sap. Birch sap is boiled from Finland to Japan. It's not as sweet as maple sap. It takes 100 gallons of birch sap to make a gallon of syrup and only 40 or 50 gallons of maple sap. Birch syrup cannot be further heated to make sugar.
"Real" maple syrup comes in four grades: Grade A light, medium, and dark amber; and Grade B. Grade A medium and dark amber are the most common table syrups. Grade B is dark and strong, and is normally just used in cooking.
Have you ever tasted real maple syrup? The kind you buy in the store is mostly made of corn syrup and maple flavoring.
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