Maple Syrup Making — a Sweet Central Minnesota Tradition
BY JAMES GERCHY, OUTDOORS WRITER | SPECIAL TO TOWNSQUARE MEDIA
Today’s maple syrup gathering tools may be made from modern materials, but the method for creating maple syrup from tree sap has changed little since Native Americans shared the secret with early European settlers over a century ago.
The ‘sugar moon’ in March usually signaled the beginning of the sugar season in the north woods. The modern-day sap runs start around mid-February and runs through April if conditions are right. Trees need daytime temperatures above freezing and nighttime temperatures below freezing to optimize the flow of sap. A group of maple trees used for tapping is often called referred to as a ‘sugarbush.’
All trees have a sap run in the spring, but only a few species, mostly maples, have a high enough sugar content to make the finished product sweet. Syrup production was born out of necessity. Cane sugar was a rare and pricey commodity until the 20th century. Modern high-fructose corn syrup sweetener was decades away from being discovered. Maple tree sap cooked down to the maple sugar stage was the only sweetener available.
Syrup making is labor-intensive, but the rewards are sweet! It usually takes between 30-40 gallons of maple sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup. After selecting and tapping the best Maple trees, the sap is collected in buckets and gathered by carrying it to the ‘sugarshack’ where it will be boiled until it is reduced to the syrupy sweet liquid that graces our pancakes and waffles. Modern syrup makers use long runs of tubing called tap-lines and vacuum or gravity to get the sap from the tree to the cooking vessel.
Maple syrup is produced commercially in Minnesota and the statistics are tracked by the United States Department of Agriculture. According to the USDA, Minnesota’s 2017 maple syrup production was 14,000 gallons, the same as in 2016. The number of taps in 2017 was 77,000, 1,000 taps greater than 2016. This resulted in a yield of 0.182 gallons per tap. In 2016, the average price Minnesota maple syrup producers received was $65.70 per gallon.
The USDA went on to report that the 2017 Minnesota maple syrup season officially began on February 12, three days earlier than last year. The season ended on April 28, four days after 2016. This year’s season averaged 30 days, one day less than last year.
Central Minnesotans can watch this process at Kraemer Lake Wildwood County Park where maple syrup has been produced since the 1970s. After the land for the park was sold to the county an agreement with the landowners allows continued production under the name Wildwood Ranch Maple Syrup with public tours of the tap-lines in the sugarbush and demonstrations of the cooking process are part of the agreement.
You can watch the whole process on Saturday, March 31 from 1-4 p.m. at 29709 Kipper Road, St. Joseph, MN 56374, the address for Kraemer Lake Wildwood County Park.
There are other maple syrup events held at Minnesota State Parks. Follow this link for more information.
Want to try making syrup from trees in your own backyard? The Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, A Minnesota Department of Natural Resources publication, ran a feature piece for young naturalists complete with step-by-step directions from tree to boiler. You can see that PDF at this link.