I've always been a huge proponent of using pure maple syrup— I'd rather suffer through cotton mouth from eating a stack of completely dry flapjacks than even consider reaching toward a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth's—but I never really knew much about how this delicious condiment got its way to my plate. 

Turns out I didn't have to look far to get the information I desired, as Michigan State's Forestry Club has its very own Maple Syrup Coordinator! Even though I couldn't convince him to get me some free product (Note: I ended up buying some anyway, and it was 100% worth every penny), he was kind enough to give me a crash course in Syrup Production 101.

1. There's not just one source for sap.

Collecting Day

LadyDragonflyCC - >;< on Flickr

Sap can be collected from a variety of trees, with 10 species of maple considered suitable to tap. But for the sake of the syrup we are likely most familiar with, the sugar maple (Acer saccarum) is the most desirable because, as the name suggests, its sap has a relatively high sugar content.

2. Timing is key.

tapping another tree

wplynn on Flickr

Syruping/sugaring—the process of tapping and collecting sap from the trunks of the trees—begins whenever temperatures remain below freezing overnight but break the freezing-point threshold in the day.

This temperature variation prompts the tree to start pumping sugary sap from its winter storage in the roots up to its highest branches to prepare for fresh growth in the spring. Typically, harvesting occurs between late February and late March and is cut off when the first buds on the trees break. At this point, sap flow is significantly decreased, and any sap collected may begin to have an altered, unpleasant taste.

3. You need a big collecting bucket if you want a decent volume of syrup.

Dripping Maple Goodness

LadyDragonflyCC - >;< on Flickr

On average, it takes roughly 40 gallons of sap to make a single gallon of maple syrup, and a tree will produce 10-20 gallons of sap per tap in a sugaring season.

4. Syrup-making is a science.

Maple Syrup

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on Flickr

The only way to truly know whether or not you have syrup is with a hydrometer. Syrup, by definition, must be 66% sugar (or 66 degrees Brix), and this is only measurable with this tool. Degrees Brix measures how many grams of sucrose are in 100 grams of an aqueous solution, in this case, the syrup.

5. Not all syrup is created equal.


Glass_House on Flickr

The grade of the product is usually measured based on color with a lighter syrup being of a “higher quality.” Like alcohols, lighter syrups tend to be smoother, while darker product tends to have some more character. This depends on a variety of things, but most notably it depends on the sugar content of the sap (lower sugar content of sap requires more boiling, which causes the sugars to caramelize more), the efficiency of a boiler, and the bacteria content of the sap.

6. The state that leads the U.S. in production of maple syrup is exactly who you'd expect.

Maple Syrup

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on Flickr

Michigan has the 7th highest production of syrup in the United States, turning out 110,000 gallons in 2017. Unsurprisingly, Vermont, whose official state flavor is maple, led the way with a whopping 1,980,000 gallons.

Whether you're drowning your pancakes and waffles in the morning or adding a little flavor to your roasted veggies at dinner, there's never a bad time to enjoy the sticky sweetness of maple syrup.