Photos: New York State Maple Association
We’ve all read that the pandemic sent wine sales surging, but did you know that maple syrup is selling like, well, hot cakes? In both cases, it is likely a combination of factors that are driving the increase: we can’t dine out, so indulgences that happen in restaurants are happening at home; we need to treat ourselves; everyone’s spending a lot more time getting creative in the kitchen; and people are using their dollars to support local industry.
The overall maple syrup industry reports a 25% increase in syrup sales, and the New York State Maple Association has seen the same spike locally. Maple syrup has a long and storied history in North America, with indigenous people first collecting it as their primary sweetener, and, then, settlers adopting the tradition. Stored properly, syrup has a long shelf life. Once it’s opened, it will keep in the fridge for one-two years.
We sat down with the New York State Maple Association’s Executive Director Helen Thomas to find out more about why she believes real maple syrup belongs in everyone’s fridge, and why it may be easier than you think not just to enjoy it, but to make it yourself. Please read on.
NEW YORK MAKERS: How did you become involved in maple syrup?
HELEN THOMAS: I’ve been involved since I can remember. I grew up making it as a child, and my sisters and I still make it on Maxon Family Farm. Right now, we have about 2,500 trees that make 600-700 gallons of syrup a year. My sisters and I partner with a neighbor, who taps 12,000 trees. We sell our syrup retail and to wholesalers. I’ve always loved it, because it’s completely distinct, depending on where the trees grow. Depending on the number of old trees and young trees, the geology, the soil, the weather conditions of that year, you get different flavors. I find it fascinating.
NYM: How have you seen the pandemic change the industry?
HT: Well, it’s been for both the good and the bad. The bad is that we can’t get together with people. For the second year in a row, the New York State Maple Producers’ Association has had to cancel its statewide agritourism event, the Annual Maple Weekend. That’s all due to social distancing concerns, of course. I was devastated to share the news with our 600+ members. But, honestly, there has been a lot of good, too. I have been just thrilled to see how Cornell University and University of Vermont have stepped up with webinars, virtual events, and training videos for hobbyists and professionals. They’ve done a wonderful job. And many of our producers, like my sisters and me, have ramped up their farmers markets efforts, and we have seen more and more people come out. I think people feel more comfortable shopping outside or in carefully managed spaces than they do in big grocery stores. We’ve really enjoyed the safe contact with people, and we believe they have, too. Our sales have really increased this year, and every other producer I speak to has said the same thing.
NYM: When I think of an industry like maple syrup, I worry that it won’t thrive in the 21st century because so many people are leaving farming careers. What are you seeing on the ground?
HT: Oh, well I’ve seen an absolute explosion in interest in the 11 years I’ve served as Executive Director, not just from people buying the syrup, but from people who want to make it as a hobby or a business. In the 11 years I’ve been here, our membership has more than doubled. I’d say about 475 of those members are farms who sell their syrup to the public, and the rest are either producing it bulk or making it as a hobby. Even though we had to cancel our public event, we’ve decided to move forward with our industry event this year. I’m just sorting out the details now, but it’s going to happen in October in Niagara Falls. North American Syrup Council (NAMSC) and the International Maple Syrup Institute (IMSI) will present, and we’re teaming up with Niagara Falls Culinary Institute and food producers who are part of TASTE NY to create cooking and tasting events. There will be a lot for hobbyists to experienced producers, a range of seminars covering everything from the basics to highly technical aspects. I’m guessing that at least 400 people will come, and, if attendees bring their passports, they can walk over the Peace Bridge to Canada!
NYM: What are the weirdest and worst misconceptions people have about maple syrup?
HT: The thing that drives me craziest is when I see magazines writing round-ups of the best maple syrups, and it’s not even syrup! And in the grocery store, real syrup is put right next to the fake stuff. Syrup is a completely natural product, whereas that other stuff that calls itself syrup is just corn syrup with food coloring, processed ingredients, and who knows what else! And while maple syrup is a sweetener, not a health food, as a sweetener it is better than just about anything else out there nutrition-wise. (Editor’s note: Maple syrup does have dozens of compounds, polyphenols, that have anti-inflammatory properties, according to studies. Inflammation has been linked to a range of chronic conditions, from Alzheimer’s to diabetes; scientists at University of Rhode Island have even received funding to figure out if maple syrup phytochemicals can be harvested to combat some of these diseases.)
NYM: I’m guessing you use maple syrup for more than just pancakes. How can we get creative with it?
HT: Maple syrup is the only sweetener I have in the house! I do occasionally whip up waffles and pancakes, but honestly, my favorite way to use it these days is with sweet potatoes and in baking. A little goes a long way.
Indeed. At New York Makers, we occasionally use maple syrup in cocktails and sauces (try it with plain yogurt and hot sauce for an easy dip or last minute sauce). Head over to New York State Maple for a roster of sweet recipes.
How To DIY + Fun Facts
To harvest tree sap and produce maple syrup, you need several tools. Here’s the scoop, courtesy of the Cornell Sugar Maple Research & Extension Program:
- Cordless Drill with drill bit (the most common sizes today are 5/16-inch or 19/64-inch).
- Spile, made of either metal or plastic for each taphole.
- Bucket with cover or plastic sap collection bag or plastic tubing (all food grade).
- Collection or storage containers such as plastic or metal barrels (several gallons in capacity and leak-free) for sap storage before processing. These need to be clean and made of food grade material! Plan for storage capacity of 1-2 gallons for each tap.
- Pan with high sides and a heat source for boiling sap. Stainless steel with lead-free solder or welded seams strongly suggested. Heat source can be wood fire, propane or camp stove.
- Thermometer calibrated to at least 30 degree F above boiling point of water. Kitchen or candy thermometers may be adequate but must be easily readable above 200 degrees F.
- Filter for filtering hot finished syrup (food quality).
- Containers for storage of the finished product (canning jars, syrup jugs, etc.)
- Generally, maple trees should be at least 30 years old and 12 inches in diameter before being tapped. Bigger trees can have up to four taps.
- One tap produces 10 gallons of sap per season, which in turn creates one quart of syrup.
- Tapping does not permanently damage trees; only about 10% of sap is collected every year.
- Maple season can last up to 10 weeks, but the flow is heaviest in early spring.
- Sap becomes syrup when it reaches 7.5 degrees above water’s boiling point.
- It takes up to 50 gallons of sap to create one gallon of syrup.
- It takes one gallon of syrup to make eight pounds of maple sugar.
- One gallon weighs 11 pounds.
Then again, if this is too daunting, go to New York Makers Marketplace and shop for some of the finest, most tasty maple products around! All made here at home.