Episode 24: Maple Sugaring Transcript


Nature Boost Maple Sugaring

Duration: 22:10


[Electronically modified bird call with drumbeat in the background, owl call and nature sounds]

Jill:  Hey there!  And welcome back to another episode of Nature Boost.  I'm Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation.  Getting out to discover nature in the winter can be rough.  But, if you're like me you can basically be motivated to do anything if there's food or sweets involved.  And it turns out a Missouri winter is a great time to get nature's sugar fix.  I'm talking about waffles' favorite mate, maple syrup.  

Last winter I met up with Interpretive Center manager Amy Wilkinson at Rockwood's Reservation near St. Louis to learn all about maple sugaring:  Tapping maple trees to make your own syrup.  

Amy:  So Rockwood's is actually one of the oldest conservation areas.  It's the first area that the conservation department bought in 1938.  So it's got really cool history here.  

Jill:  Gosh!  It is just gorgeous out here!  

Amy:  It's really pretty when it snows out here.  If the sap were dripping, like you would hear the little ping in the metal buckets, and it's just like, magical when the snow is on the ground.    

Jill: Ohh!  The northeastern United States and Canada are well known for producing maple syrup, but it's been made wherever sugar maple trees are found, including in Missouri.  MDC offers several programs each winter to make your own, and even gives you tips on how to do it yourself if you happen to have sugar maples on your property.  

Amy:  So we call this area our sugar bush, and when you hear that, like, I don't know about you but I think like of a bush covered in sugar and that's not what it is.  A sugar bush is the name of a place that has lots of sugar maple trees.  And so if you kind of look around, like most -- especially these young ones that we're seeing -- are mostly sugar maples.  


Jill:  Um, so these skinny little long trees right here, so this is one?  

Amy:  Yup.  So this is - yeah.  So if you look out and we have some older ones that are further.   A bit up the hill.  Um, but this is an area that has just a lot in one place.  

Jill:  If you're not savvy to tree identification, how -- are there any telltale signs of, "Oh I know this is a maple tree?"  

Amy:  So it's much easier to identify trees in the spring and summer [laughing] when the leaves are on.  

Jill:  Sure.  [Laughing.]  

Amy:  And if you're familiar with the Canadian flag, that is a sugar maple leaf on their flag.  So maple leaves have kind of a palmate shape.  A lot of times I look at that and I see an M for maple, or a W for waffles, if you turn it upside-down.  Um, that's how I remember.  Also the seeds -- you might seeds, you might recognize they're called samaras.  And they're the ones that a lot of us played with as kids.  So they're the ones that you pick them up, and throw them in the air, and they spin like a helicopter.  

Jill:  Oh!  The little airplane one!  

Amy:  Yeah.  So those are maple seeds.  So those are the telltale signs in the spring and summer.  In the wintertime it's more difficult but you can also look at branching.  So maple trees have opposite branching along the trunk or along their twigs if you look at the branches that would be straight across from each other as opposed to alternate along the main trunk.  That's only four types of trees in Missouri that have opposite branching: Maples, Ashes, Dogwoods, and Buckeyes.  So that kind of narrows it down a little bit.  And then, also if you're very good at tree I.D. in the wintertime you can identify trees by their bark which takes a little bit more practice.  But sugar maples, the older they get, they tend to peel outwards.  Like, kind of like imagine a door opening.  Their bark looks like that.  And then underneath, it's often kind of tannish pink.  But -- much harder to identify in the winter.  So what I suggest if people want to do this at home, is that you identify the tree in the spring or summer.  You mark it somehow.  Then you know in the wintertime which tree to go back and tap.  

Jill:  That way you you're not just going in and drilling into random trees and causing some damage.  That is a smart way.  So right here you were saying Amy that we have -- this is a young one -- this is a young sugar maple?  

Amy:  So yes.  We have -- we generally want in order to tap them -- they need to be at least 10 inches in diameter.  So this one that we're looking at is too little to tap.  I kind of compare that to giving blood in people.  So, you have to be a certain age and size to donate your blood because you need it in order to grow.  So the same thing with the trees.  The young ones need all that sap in order to grow, so we only tap ones that are 10 inches or larger.  

Jill:  I am very much a beginner.  This is what you're here for.  This is why I'm interviewing the expert.  But is it silly of me to think -- wouldn't it be flowing more in the warmer months, because then it heats up, and you know that's just what mind goes to.  But why is it in the colder months that this happens?  

Amy:  Yeah.  So it has to do with what happens to the tree throughout the year.  So in the spring and the summer, you know they've got their leaves out, they are collecting sunlight, and it's carbon dioxide and water and they're making food for the tree.  So in the fall, when those leaves drop off, all of that sugar that they've made, kind of gets stored -- kind of goes down into the root system and the storage of starches.  So in the late winter or early spring -- which is about this time -- when we have temperatures above freezing during the day and below freezing at night, that kind of tells the tree to start getting ready for spring.  And so what that means is it's got to start sending sap up to those leaf buds so that they have enough energy to leaf out in the springtime.  And so that's what is causing the sap flow this time of year.  So yeah, we'd love to do this when it is warmer outside, but unfortunately that sap is flowing when those temperatures are above freezing in the day and below freezing at night.  

When we find a tree that we want to tap, we use a drill, and of course this has changed over time.  You know we know that indigenous people did this as well, so they would have used different tools and different methods.  But we use a hand drill, and we drill about a couple inches into the tree, and we put in our tap, or another name for it is a spile.  And it's just a little -- the ones that we use are plastic.  They come in different -- you know you can get metal ones -- and the ones people used to use were wooden ones, but we kind of tap it.  We hammer it into the tree so it's nice and secure.  And on the bottom of the tap is a little hook, and that's where we hang our bucket.  


We also make sure that we have a lid on our bucket and some of that is just to keep the leaf debris out and things.  But the main reason is we don't want more snow or water getting into our bucket, because that will make it take longer to cook and evaporate that water.  'Cause essentially all we're doing is cooking off the water, and getting down to the sugar.  

Jill:  Amy says, the bigger the temperature span, the more the sap flows.  Some days the buckets fill up with sap and you have to empty them daily, while other times it only trickles.  But on really cold days the sap isn't flowing because it's frozen.  She also explained that maple sugaring is pretty unique because it not only connects us to our history, but is a great example of conservation in action.  

Amy:  Maple sugaring is really interesting 'cause we --you know -- in a lot of our educational programs we talk about connecting people to the fish, forest and wildlife of Missouri.  But also we talk about conservation.  And maple sugaring kind of represents both, because we know that people have been doing this for thousands of years, so we know that indigenous peoples did it.  Native Americans taught the colonists how to do this.  So it's connecting us to our history, but then it's also an example of conservation because we're using the tree in a smart way.  Over time these families that would set up these sugar camps and do this year after year, they didn't want to harm the trees because they wanted to be able to do it again and make this maple sugar for trading purposes even.  So it's kind of a cool way that connects us to conservation and our history.  

But, it's kind of debated on how they discovered how to do this.  And it's interesting to think about, like how someone thought, "I'm going to drill a hole into a tree, and get sap, and cook it and it's gonna be sweet."  You know?  [Laughing.]  There's some theories on how.  One of them is as people would be walking through the forest this time of year, sometimes there would be -- a branch would break off or there would be a hole in the tree and then the sap would come out and freeze, like an icicle.  And they would break them off, and suck on them, and they would notice that they were sweet.  So like a sapsicle.  

Jill:  Yeah!  

Amy:  And then a likely way that people discovered is also by watching wildlife, which we discover a lot of things that way.  So there's a woodpecker in Missouri that we only have in the wintertime called a yellow bellied sapsucker.  And they will drink the sap.  So if you've ever seen a tree that has tiny holes all in a row, like almost a perfect row that's probably from a yellow bellied sapsucker.  So they drill these little holes so they can collect the sap so they can eat the sap, but the sap also attracts things like ants.  So it's a little bit of a lure, so that they can eat the ants as well.  So we think that people may have watched them and determined, and kind of figured out that this was a sweet thing that they could collect.  But it's kind of cool to think about how that came about.  

Jill:  Amy tells us more about the maple sugaring process, after the break.  Stay tuned.  


[Start announcement]

Announcer 1:  This is discover nature notes, with the Missouri Department of Conservation.  

Announcer 2:  Are you looking to get in shape or spend quality time with family and friends this New Year?  Try these winter adventures.  Experience nature's gym by walking or hiking trails near you.  Conservation areas and nature centers have many choices from easy walks to longer hikes.  Ditch the headphones!  And listen to the birds in stereo.  Reap the aerobic benefits while hiking with friends!  Or refresh in quiet and solitude.  Winter trout fishing is also popular.  Our lakes are cold enough to support trout in winter, so some are stocked for close to home fishing.  Your family can spend the day catching rainbows without leaving the city.  Try tapping a tree and making your own maple syrup!  See how it's done at maple sugar festivals in St. Louis and Kansas City this February.

Announcer 1:  Discover more by signing up today at discovernaturenotes.com.  

[Frog croak.]  

Announcer 2:  The Missouri Department of Conservation.   [Frog croak.]  Serving nature, and you.  

[End announcement ]

Jill:  And welcome back to Nature Boost where we're learning how to tap Missouri maple sugar trees to make sweet maple syrup.  I met up with NBC's Amy Wilkinson at Rocwood's Reservation, and she's giving us all the info on collecting the sap.  I love maple syrup.  I love sugar.  My favorite movie is Elf because, um, I really identify with how much he loves sugar.  [Laughing.]  

So I'm so thankful that you were willing to meet me and show me how this done.  So we've got our -- what's the next step?  You've got the bucket, and it's full of sap, and what do you do next?  

Amy:  So once we've got our buckets full of sap, we do have to filter it because sometimes there's a particular ant, and moth that do get into our sap buckets usually year after year.  So we have to filter those guys out, which we typically use just like something like a mesh coffee filter, and like a funnel and dump it into a collection container.  And at that point, the sap it looks mostly just like water.  And it is mostly like water.  It's only about like 3% sugar.  

Jill:  So what is it, it's pretty liquidy then, or it's not too thick?  What you would think?  

Amy:  Yeah.  And we even do like taste tests in our program too, of sap, and it does mostly take like water maybe with just a hint of sugar.  But at that point we have our sap.  You either have to cook it right away, you can store it in the refrigerator for about a week, or you can freeze it for up to a year.  So we kind of have to manage our sap throughout our season.  You know we're doing -- we're using some of it for programs, but we're also freezing some of it for next year.  But from then, then you move on to the cooking process.  


Jill:  Next Amy showed me the kettle station at Rockwood's which shows visitors the process colonists used to make their maple sugar.  

Amy:  Yeah, we try to make it look authentic.  [Laughing.]  

Jill:  Yes, yes it is!  It does look authentic.  So tell me!  Tell me about this station.  

Amy:  Alright, so we call this our three kettle station.  And, it's mainly just to show you how colonists would have done this sort of process.  Um, so of course the Native Americans were doing it first, and you know they would have used something like, you know, they would have made big slashes into the tree, and their collection containers would have been something like a birch bark bowl.  We're not completely sure how they cooked it because we know that they wouldn't have had metal yet, so they would have had maybe wooden bowls.  We think that maybe they did some of their other cooking by heating up rocks in the fire, and then putting it into the wooden bowl, then kind of transferring that back and forth until it was cooked.  

Jill:  Oh my gosh, how labor intensive that must have been.  Oh my gosh.  

Amy:  So, that could have been how they did the sugar.  But Native Americans and colonists, they weren't cooking syrup.  They were cooking it all the way down to a granulated sugar.  Because syrup wasn't something that was easy to transport, so often the would set up these sugar camps, make as much sugar as they can, and then they would move on.  So they needed something that they could transport with them.  

So when the colonists came they brought metal.  So they had these big copper kettles that would use.  And so this station kind of demonstrates the three kettle system.  And so what they would do -- and this was a family affair, so everyone would be involved -- because you only have about a six week period of time to make as much sugar as possible for your family, or to trade, or for whatever you needed it for.  So everybody would be involved.  The kids would be out collecting the sap, collecting the firewood.  They would keep this fire going 24/7 and cooking the sap down to sugar.  So the three kettle system is basically -- they would put the fresh sap into the kettle.  They would start with the sap in all kettles, but they would put the fresh sap only into the first kettle.  And then as it cooked down, they would transfer it to the second kettle.  And as it cooked down more, they were transferred to the third kettle.  So it was kind of a more efficient way to keep it cooking, and keep it moving.  Because the third kettle they would watch, and you know it was often the matriarch of the family who would know exactly what it would look like when she needed to pull it off the fire.  

So, and it starts to -- as that water evaporates, it starts to kind of carmelize, and get that kind of syrup sugar color that we know, the brownish color.  So she would watch that last pot, and then when it was ready, she would pull it off.  And to get it to crystallize, you have to mix it really fast.  So she would put it in like a wooden bowl and stir, stir stir really fast until it started to look milky and then just eventually crystallize into sugar.  And then they would pour it into molds, like a rectangle block form and let it dry like that.  So they would have these blocks of pure maple sugar at the end.  

Jill:  Oh, perfect!  Now obviously this is very labor intensive, and you know you have to keep those fires going all the time.  

Amy:  And I forgot to mention too that maple sugar was really popular at one point just because there was a high tax on cane sugar.  And so people didn't want to pay that high tax, and so maple sugar was a really popular thing to trade.  Now when the cane tax was lifted, that's when the cane syrup became more popular because there wasn't a demand for the sugar anymore.  And then eventually in the 1950s when corn syrup was invented, that kind of took away from some of the maple syrup production as well.  And then they started to get into other products like butter, and candy, and all those maple things that you see out there today.  So depending on your fire, you can cook of a gallon to maybe two gallons in an hour.  And one thing I didn't mention yet either is that it takes forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.  


Jill:  You're kidding!  Oh my gosh!  So would we have to tap all the maple trees?  [Laughing.]  I mean, like you say though, it seems like there are so many factors that go into it.  The temperature obviously affects how much sap is actually flowing from the tree, and then you've gotta make sure that no wildlife get into it and no debris get into it and everything.  It's just, you seem like you have to be probably a little meticulous about this.  

Amy:  Yeah definitely.  And it makes you appreciate real maple syrup that you buy at the store, because it is pricier than your corn syrups.  But when you know all the work involved, and it just tastes sweeter.  

Jill:  But let's talk about how to do this process in the modern way.  Amy says that flat evaporator pans are a more efficient way to evaporate the water faster.  As the water evaporates, the sugar remains and becomes more and more concentrated.  You'll need a candy thermometer to make sure the mixture reaches 219 degrees.  At that point, the mix is 67% sugar, and 33% water, and it's at the syrup stage.  But, you'll need to filter it once more.  You can pour the syrup through cheese clothes or commercial filters to remove potassium nitrate and other minerals in tree sap that can make it taste bad.  

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Jill:  For more information on maple sugaring and tips on how to do this in your own backyard, find MDC's Backyard Guide to Maple Sugaring on our website at missouriconservation.org.  But the real question is, how does real maple syrup stand up against the generic corn syrup varieties you find at the store?  Well luckily Amy set up a taste test to see how the two actually compare.  


Ok so now let's do Amy's taste test.  I've got one container that has maple syrup, and another container that has corn syrup.  

Amy:  Can you tell just by looking at it?  

Jill:  Can I tell by just looking?  You know they're both very similar in color.  Well, actually no.  One is a lot darker.  One has a lot kind of a more like a rich caramel color, and then the other one is not as dark.  And I don't know, I think -- I'm going to try to smell and see if I can figure it out.  That one?  Hmm.  I smell that and I'm like, "I wonder if that's the corn syrup."  'Cause the first one I smelled just smells very sweet.  But it almost smells fake.  But this one, this one smells better.  That's really sweet.  OK.  It's good.  The smell of this one doesn't have as much of a sweet smell as the other.  This one does smell a lot sweeter, but it does -- and it's a lot thicker too.  OK I think this is corn syrup and I think this is maple syrup.  

Amy:  You are correct.  

Jill:  [Inhales sharply.]  

[Amy laughing in the background.]   

Jill:  This surprisingly is very sweet, the maple syrup.  

Amy:  It is.  

Jill:  Yeah.  I was, um, you'd think doing it naturally you wouldn't be as -- I almost want to say there's more of a maple flavor in -- like, this smells mapley -- the corn syrup does.  This one, the real maple syrup doesn't smell as mapley but it tastes -- it tastes really sweet.  I'm very surprised at how sweet it is.  

Amy:  So if you look at the ingredients of, you know your corn syrup varieties, not often does it have any real maple syrup in it.  So it's high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, and a bunch of unpronounceable things and preservatives and the maple flavoring.  But um, it's really inexpensive, corn syrup is so a lot of people like that, and that's OK, and it is thicker like you've noticed.   But real maple syrup, all it is is pure maple syrup.  All that was is evaporation and that's came from the sap, and the concentrations of the sugars, so.  But it is a lot thinner so if you pour it over your waffles or your pancakes, it's going to run a lot more.  And you have to keep it refrigerated because it's going to go bad.  It doesn't have all the preservatives that corn syrup has.  

Jill:  It makes sense.  And well -- just looking -- you mentioned that can you just tell the color, by the difference?  And I'm like, actually you can when you kind of look down.  The real maple syrup does have kind of that darker color.  And so that's interesting.  Thank you for doing that!  I've actually never compared the two before like that so it was interesting to see just the difference, and you know.  It does!  The whole process, it makes you appreciate the maple, the maple syrup more.  

Amy:  Maybe it makes you be OK with spending a little bit more money for the real thing too.  

Jill:  Yes.  Absolutely.  Absolutely.  Thanks again to MDC's Amy Wilkinson for satisfying my sweet tooth and all of the helpful information.  And if you'd like to know more about the process or maple sugaring programs MDC offers this winter, be sure to visit missouriconservation.org.  I'm Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation, urging you to get your daily dose of the outdoors.

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