Averaged out over the entire population of the United States, each of us only consumes 3 ounces of maple syrup each year. But since only 6.4 percent of Americans eat maple syrup on a regular basis (which is actually up from only 2.5 percent in 2005), it is a small group of us that are eating much more than that 3-ounce stat — and I am most certainly one of them. I've long known about maple syrup's health benefits; made from tapping the natural spring sap flow of the sugar maple tree and simply boiled down, it is certainly a tasty sweetener (sucrose), but it also contains vitamins, minerals and micronutrients that corn syrup and sugars do not (they only sweeten, and are otherwise inert in terms of nutrition).
Michael Farrell (that's him, above, in a vintage-style woodburning maple sugaring house that's still used), the director of the Uihlein Forest at the Cornell University Department of Natural Resources, told me that maple syrup production is barely tapped in New York state (only 1 percent of available trees are set up for sap harvesting; only 3 percent in Vermont) and that Canada supplies about 80 percent of the world's maple syrup. He explained that maple sugaring is sustainable too; tapping doesn't hurt the tree in any way — studies show the trees that are tapped year after year live just as long, and just grow slightly most slowly than their un-harvested counterparts.
Cornell's Uihlein Sugar Maple Research Extension Field Station is looking into new ways to maximize maple syrup production, distribution and popular acceptance of the toothsome syrup. Not only is maple syrup a local food for New England, New York, the entire mid-Atlantic and Midwestern regions, and even parts of the South (yes, sugar maples can be tapped as far south as northern Georgia), as mentioned above, it is a much healthier alternative to processed sugar, which comes from California and Hawaii (quite a distance for shipping if you live in the eastern part of the country). But currently, we are not taking advantage of this sustainable sweetener source, which is also a carbon sink, a natural forest cover for animals, insects and native plants, not to mention absolutely glorious in the fall (sugar maples are the ones with bright orange and red autumn leaves that look like they are on fire).
While plenty of maple syrup producers use the old bucket-collection method (probably what you think of when you think of maple sap gathering), Farrell has set up an experimental system at Heaven Hill Farm in the Adirondacks that uses a system of tubes connected to about 5,000 trees; during peak sap running season, Farrell says he can collect 12-15 gallons of sap a minute, with much less effort/people hours than the bucket-collecting system.
Fresh maple sap runs into a collecting tank; then it is sent into the processing house, where reverse osmosis removes much of the water content. Then it is boiled for a short time (instead of the typical all-day boiling process that's typical of old-school syrup production) and within about an hour-and-a-half, sap is converted to syrup, which can keep for many years, which is good, since like any natural commodity, seasonal variations effect how much maple syrup is made each year. When asked about global warming and syrup production, Farrell said not to worry — even in worst-case warming scenarios, New York and New England will still be able to make plenty of syrup, defying reports that suggest otherwise.
Farrell told us that birch trees can be tapped too; although the syrup made from birches doesn't taste delicious like maple does, it contains lots of vitamins and minerals and has been used as a health tonic. We tried some birch sap directly from the tree, and it was mild and tasty, lightly sweet, almost like watered-down coconut water. Now I want to try the syrup made from the sap (and will enjoy birch beer so much more in the future, which Farrell says is probably the best use for birch extracts).
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All photos by Starre Vartan