The History of Maple Syrup

Maple syrup is one of the most popular syrups used when eating pancakes. It is usually made from the xylem sap of sugar maple, black maple, or red maple trees. Aside from that, it can also be made from other maple species. In addition to pancakes, it is also often used as a condiment for waffles, oatmeal, porridge, and as well as French toast. It can also be used in baking as a sweetener or flavoring agent. 

If maple syrup is one of your favorite pancake condiments, have you ever wondered how it began? Who do you think is the first one who made and used maple syrup? If you are also wondering about it, then read on to know more about the history of maple syrup.

Legendary Origins of Maple Syrup

The origins of the practice of making maple syrup from sap, or what is called maple sugaring, are submerged in legend. The very first people who began the practice were Native Americans, long before the Europeans arrived in America. However, it is not clear on which tribe first discovered it. There are also multiple legends about its discovery. 

Based on one story, Prince Glooskap found his people drinking maple syrup lazily right from the trees instead of working. With this, he punished them by adding water to the syrup and making the sap available only in spring. The people then would need to boil down the sap instead of being lazy. There’s also another similar story involving the son of the Earth Mother named Kokomis, in Prince Glooskap’s role. Then, according to a third story from the Chippewa and Ottawa tribes of Michigan states, the god NenawBozhoo cast the spell. 

In the Atlantic Monthly’s April 1896 issue, a different legend about the origins of the maple syrup was told. It tells about a woman named Moqua, who was cooking moose for her husband Woksis. When her boiling pot ran out of water, she refilled it with maple sap. When the sap was boiled down, it formed syrup in the pot. 

There’s also another legend that tells about the chief who threw his tomahawk into a tree. After throwing, the tree began to drip with sap. With this, his wife thought about cooking meat in the sap. When she did, the final result was a delicious syrupy meal. It was also believed that the chief was the first one to use the word “Sinzibuckwud”, meaning “drawn from trees”. It is the word that Native Americans often use to refer to maple syrup. 

The Early Methods of Making Maple Syrup

The methods of sap collection of early Native Americans involved cutting a V shape into the bark of the maple tree and putting a wedge at the lowermost part of the cut. With that, the sap would flow out of the wedge, going into their baskets that were placed at the base of the tree. These baskets were made out of wood that was hollowed out using a hatchet, and they used these years after years. There are also times when the baskets were made of bark, but they were only used for one season.

After collecting the sap from maple trees, it is then boiled slowly until it became syrup. After that, it would be cooled and kept in baskets. The gathering and boiling of sap were generally done by women in the tribe. 

The Colonist Methods of Making Maple Syrup

When the European colonists came and settled in the area, the indigenous people taught them how to tap maple trees. But instead of using a wedge to extract sap, they used augers to drill holes in the trees. After that, they would insert wooden spouts into the holes and hang buckets from them to collect sap. These buckets were made by the colonists by hallowing segments of a tree to make a whole container. 

To haul larger sap-filled containers to a central point or what is called the sugar shack, draft animals were used. The sugar shack was where the sap was boiled down to make syrup or sugar. During those times, maple syrup was more popular due to the huge expense of importing non-native sugar cane from other locations. 

Making Maple Syrup in the 1800s and Beyond

There were many innovations in sap boiling in the 1800s. Large flat metal pans became available around the year 1850. It increased the surface area, making it more efficient compared to the previously used iron kettles. There was also a two-pan evaporator that was introduced in late 1800, which helped in cutting even more time from the process. Then, the tin in the bottom of the pan was made around 1900 to form flues, which helped increase surface area even more.  

Cane sugar had an increased availability during the 1800s. This was why the producers switched their focus from maple sugar to maple syrup. There were also further technological innovations that made it easier for them to produce maple syrup in larger quantities. After a few years, the buckets that were hung from taps are replaced by plastic bags. Also, the draft animals were replaced by tractors to haul large quantities of sap from the trees going to the sugar shack. 

Producers also sometimes used motor-powered tappers and metal tubing systems in addition to simplifying the process of transferring sap from trees going to the evaporator. Also, aside from wood, there are additional fuel options available for heating, including oil, natural gas, steam, and propane. And finally, filtration was improved to be able to create a purer final product. 

Making Maple Syrup in the Modern Times

There were technical advances in the 1970s that gave producers of maple syrup more options to modernize the process. There were newly available vacuum pumps that helped in moving sap through plastic tubing systems that connect trees to the sugar shack. Aside from that, reverse osmosis machines were also used by producers to remove water from the sap before the boiling process starts. There were larger storage containers that are more effective, as well. And they also created pre-heaters that helped in reducing heat loss. 

In the present time, there are many options available to producers of maple syrup. Most of them were able to greatly increase production and efficiency while lowering the cost for the customers at the same time. But when you look at it at its most basic level, the process of making maple syrup has not changed much from the original method used by early Native Americans. 

Maple sugaring can definitely bring more innovations as its process grows in popularity. It is amazing to know that the maple syrup most of us love on our pancakes is first made by early Native Americans. And we are still enjoying it today, with the improved process of producing it.