Maple Sugar Industry

Maple products are a unique phenomenon with a rich history. The sweet sap of the sugar MAPLE (Acer saccharum) was known and valued by the native peoples of eastern North America long before the arrival of European settlers. An Iroquois legend tells of the piercing of the bark of a maple and the use of the "sweet water" to cook venison, a happy accident which established the culinary tradition of maple-cured meats. French settlers probably learned from the Indians how to tap trees to obtain sap and how to boil it to reduce it to sweet syrup or sugar slabs to be stored for later use.

The Ojibwa called the "sugaring off" period the "maple moon" or "sugar month." The tradition of sugaring off became established in communities in the deciduous forests of North America and has survived to the present time.

World production of maple sugar is limited to the Maple Belt, the hardwood FOREST stretching from the midwestern US through Ontario, Québec and New England and into the Canadian Maritimes. In the fall, the sugar maple lays down concentrated sugars in the rays of the tree; these sugars mature during winter and are harvested while the frost is still in the ground. The sap flow is stimulated in spring as the days become warmer and temperatures rise above 0°C during daylight, followed by below-freezing nights. Within the tree, positive pressures (as high as 165 kPa or 1.6 atmospheres) produce a natural flow of sap that is tapped by boring holes into the tree. The clear sap rushes out of these holes and into the collection system.

As the pressure drops during the day, the sap flow slows down and stops. Negative pressure is then found within the tree, and it begins to absorb water through the root system. The next day, as the tree warms up, positive pressure is restored and the pumping action yields another flow. The process continues for about 6 weeks in early spring. At the end of that time the sap takes on a cloudy appearance and the sugar content drops off dramatically. During the height of the sugaring season, sap contains about between 2% and 5% sugar; towards the end of the season less than 1%. During the maple harvest, the tree will give up about 7% of its sap; tests confirm that this does no long-term damage to the tree. Many of the tapped trees are well over 100 years old.

There are various sap-gathering methods. Traditional bucket collection, although still used throughout the Maple Belt, is being replaced by a vacuum-tubing system that reduces labour and creates a more sanitary environment for collection. Once the maple sap is collected, it is evaporated into syrup. The dilute raw material is reduced to remove excess water; nothing is added. It takes approximately 30-45 L of maple sap to produce 1 L of pure maple syrup. Water can be removed from sap by using various systems, from wood-fired evaporators to reverse osmosis systems that separate water from the sugar molecules at high pressure. However, the sugarhouse remains the focal point of maple-syrup production; each sugar maker has one of his own.

There are about 16 000 maple-syrup producers in North America. There are about 16 000 maple-syrup producers in North America with over 80% in Canada. In 1995 total world production was 18 981 kl, of which Canada produced 14 890 kl. The province of Québec produced 13 540 kl, which represents over 90% of the total Canadian production. The rest of the Canadian production came from Ontario (5%), New Brunswick (4%) and Nova Scotia (1%). Canada's share of the world's maple production is increasing. In 1992 Canada produced 75% of the world's production. In 1995 Canada's share was 79%.

Maple syrup is a pure, natural sweetener, the only other liquid natural sweetener being honey. Maple syrup has an abundance of trace minerals that are essential to good nutrition: potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, iron, zinc, copper and tin, as well as calcium in concentrations 15 times higher than honey. It contains only one-tenth as much sodium as honey, an important consideration for those on a salt-restricted diet.

Maple syrup is graded according to colour, flavour and density; standards are prescribed by law. It must be in the range of 66-67% Brix (a hydrometric scale for sugar solutions) or 32-34% on the Baumé scale (for liquids heavier than water). Anything less or more cannot be graded and sold as pure maple syrup.

After witnessing another extraordinary Canadian spring phenomenon where she discovered the secrets of Canada's liquid asset, a famous British culinary expert (Delia Smith) attempted to describe Canadian maple syrup: "a unique ingredient, smooth and silky textured, with a sweet, distinctive flavour - hints of caramel with overtones of toffee will not do- and a rare colour amber set alight. Maple flavour is, well, maple flavour, uniquely different from any other, and ultimately quality is determined by what they call the long mouth feel".

In 1995 total exports of maple products was 19.5 million kg for a value of $80.4 million Canadian. Over 70% of Canadian production of maple products is exported. The most important market is the US, with 77% of total exports. Other principal buyers of Canadian maple products are Japan with 4.2%, Germany with 4.9%, the United Kingdom with 2.1%, Australia with 1.8% and France with 1.7%.

In the early part of the 1970s, the traditional buyers were the large food companies. When the US Food and Drug Administration reduced the minimum volume of maple syrup that must be listed as an ingredient in products sold as "maple syrup" and "maple sugar" from 15% to 2%, sales plunged dramatically and the industry experienced a major crisis. Efforts were made to develop a new market aimed directly at the consumer and the growth of this market has rejuvenated the industry. Maple products are now consumed in over 30 countries. Maple syrup remains one of the best natural sweetening sources in the world. It is still served mainly over pancakes, but recently it has also been considered a condiment. It is now used in fine cuisine to prepare sauces, glazes and vinaigrettes. In addition to its use as a syrup or as an ingredient in fine cuisine, and capitalizing on its magic and mystery, some consumers around the World prepare concoctions for special diets or for purification purposes or during special events such as fasting.

The traditional sugarhouse and the family operation, so evocative of Canada's pioneer past, will remain. For now, the Canadian maple industry has succeeded in making it a modern food industry targeting the world's finest palate.