The One with Maple Syrup

Syrup is big business. So big that two years ago it was the object of a major heist — an $18 million heist of six million gallons — from a Canadian syrup cartel. The Coen Brothers are making a movie about it. If this all sounds a little too fantastical to be true, well, the truth is often stranger than fiction.

Maybe you’ve never given syrup much thought. I hadn’t, until my friend and I visited Montreal. Nearly 80 percent of the world’s maple syrup comes from Quebec. The sap is harvested from trees during a short window of time in the spring — the “sugaring off” season, which, as luck would have it, coincided with our trip. For the Québécois, sugaring off is a rite of spring, much the way many of us in the northeastern U.S. look forward to apple picking as a sign that autumn is here.

We decided to spend a cold April day visiting a Québécois cabane à sucre, or sugar shack.  And, no, I’m not talking about that quirky earworm of a song “Sugar Shack” by Jimmy Glimmer and the Fireballs, which I will not link to here for fear of a blog mutiny. I’m talking about an honest-to-goodness cabin in the woods dedicated to turning sap into syrup.

When the nights are still chilly, but the days are warm, little buckets like these pop up all around Quebec.

Maple Buckets


Some days the buckets have to be emptied two or three times. I imagine burly, bearded men wearing plaid flannel shirts trudging through the woods to collect the buckets one by one, but now many farmers collect the sap via a vast network of plastic hoses that wind their way through the trees.

Maple sugar tubes


The sap is then brought into the sugar shack, where it is poured into large vats and boiled into thick amber goodness. What surprised me most was that the sap is clear. This is a bit embarrassing to admit, but I thought it was a brownish color. That color is only achieved after the sap is boiled and the sugar caramelizes.  It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

There is one reason to go to a sugar shack — the food. The feasts that are served at sugar shacks range from down home to avant-garde. We went the down home route — checkered tablecloths, family-style platters, wood-burning fireplace and always the jug of syrup on the table. We learned quickly that maple syrup goes with just about anything, but my favorite item on the menu was the tarte au sucre. Think of a pecan pie without the pecans. It was as if the cook said, “Let’s get rid of the only thing in this pie that could be classified as nutritious.”

Sugaring Off, a painting by Grandma Moses (1943)

Sugaring Off, a painting by Grandma Moses (1943)


The best part of the day? The tire d’érable or “sugar on snow.” The sap is boiled to a higher temperature, past the point of syrup, until it becomes thick like taffy. While it’s still nearly boiling, it’s poured onto the “snow” (really ice shavings) in delightful little rows.

Sugar Shack

Tire d’érable or “sugar on snow”

Using a popsicle stick, you roll one row over and over until it’s a little sticky ball. Then you lick it like a lollipop. Piece of advice from personal experience: Don’t bite it unless you don’t mind losing a filling.


Rolling up the tire d'érable


Despite my extensive taste testing, I’m no connoisseur, but I came away from my sugar shack experience with an appreciation for the real syrupy deal. It puts the stuff in the grocery store that comes in the bottle shaped like a certain aunt to shame.

Surprise — maple syrup production isn’t limited to Quebec or Vermont. Jocelyn over at Projects & Promises, who has some terrific sugaring off photos, lives in Ohio. Just look at her bounty! 


Before the bud swells, before the grass springs, before the plough is started, comes the sugar harvest.  It is sequel of the bitter frost; a sap run is the sweet goodbye of winter.

~ John Burroughs (1837 – 1921)


What are some of your rites of spring? 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 



  1. Growing up in Ohio we had several parishioners who tapped their trees and had a pretty nice production that I got to go help with. The metal buckets hanging from the trees were commonplace instead of the tubing which is genius but not as visually pleasing. 🙂 What a fun post this was to read! And thank you for the song headache—even if you did not include a video Sugar Shack is in my head…


    1. The whole process looks like a labor of love. Collecting the buckets, boiling the sap at just the right temperature, adding more sap at just the right time… but well worth the effort!

      Sorry about the song. That is going to stick with you for a while, I’m afraid. 😛


  2. How fun – I’ve always wanted to experience that. We switched to real maple syrup a year ago and I cannot believe we used to eat the fake stuff. We had the same experience with peanut butter — so much better natural without all that sugar and crap in it. Why did we ever feel the need to mess with the real thing?


    1. The most interesting part was the taste difference between the regions. I’ve since had maple syrup from Quebec, Vermont and upstate New York, and they each have their own flavor nuances. The syrup from Quebec seemed a little fruitier to me.
      You don’t get that with the engineered stuff!


  3. I’ve been eating real maple syrup for years, but I’ve never experienced it fresh from the sugar shack. That sounds sooooooooooooo good. I had no idea that sap runs clear, either. In fact I bet if you polled everyone around you at your Grind, you would find that you were in the majority with your assumption … Hold off on making that bet. This just in: I just ran that sap color question by my colleague, Godsend, who good guessed clear. And she’s from Queens.


  4. My family is from rural NH, with grandparents, an uncle and cousin all making their own, so I grew up with an appreciation for “the real stuff” =) Even now I have an unlabeled Ball jar of pure maple syrup in my frig because my dad will always bring some if he drives down to visit. Interesting you tasted a difference in the regions. Maybe I need to expand my maple syrup horizons!- One sobering thought, though: my husband read an article recently that climate change is going to affect maple sap and hence syrup production in the coming years- and not in a good way. =(
    I didn’t realize Coen brothers were making that movie. Can’t wait!


    1. I don’t think I’ve tasted syrup from New Hampshire. I wonder if there is a subtle taste difference between there and Vermont. We should have a blind taste test like they do for wine. 🙂
      I’m reading a book called “The Sugar Season” in which the author discusses how climate change is affecting the sap production. When the temperatures are consistently higher than normal, the sap starts running very early. So far this is a very interesting book!


  5. Thank for the lovely links, and kind remarks. I really enjoyed your post, especially the parts about the maple feast and the sugar on snow. What fun! I have also loved reviewing the comments about the different flavors of syrups from different regions. It kind of makes sense that maple syrup would have “terroir”, don’t you think? Best to you! Thanks again.


      1. No, not any formal ones. One farmer up the road always has a large crowd of friends and acquaintances at his place when his sugar shack is going. Along with other foods, they have hotdogs and bratwurst boiled in sap. (NOT the sap that goes into their evaporator, of course.)


  6. I thought it came out golden brown too, Jackie. I am surprised that they still just use buckets! Figured some high-tech method would have taken over by now.
    The heist sounds like something the Coen brothers would definitely tackle!


    1. Apparently the Canadian syrup cartel operates much like OPEC in that they store thousands of gallons of syrup so that they can set the market rate. In years of high sap production, they keep storing the syrup. In years of low sap production they release the stored syrup into the marketplace. You know that the Coen brothers are going to have fun with this one!


  7. I adore maple syrup and am always happy to pay the extra for the ‘real thing’. I also assumed it came out brown so you’re not alone! This looks like a fabulous day out 🙂


    1. The sugar shacks are such a fun experience. The sweet, mapley smell permeates the air, and you just eat things covered in syrup from the moment you sit down until the moment you leave. How great is that? 🙂


  8. I’ve had the lucky good fortune to visit several sugaring operations here in Maine — it’s an amazing process. We have lots of sugar maples in our vicinity and I remember the first time I saw the buckets on the trees, I had to ask what they were… which I found out was quite a laugh-worthy question in Maine! One of the other things that is a Spring rite for me is seed planting. I haven’t done it yet, but I need to get the seedlings ready for the garden! Happy Weekend, Jackie!


    1. Me too, Julia! The first time I saw the sap bucket, I thought something was wrong with the tree.
      Do you have any special flowers / veggies you’ll be planing this year? I’m anxiously awaiting the first of the asparagus crop at the farmers market.


  9. Hailing from New England, sugar shacks and sap collecting is a ritual one must take. Syrup and snow… Yum. Nice post


  10. A sugar heist. Gotta love that. And I love that the Coen Brothers are all over it. Sounds like an interesting experience. it’s been a long time since I’ve had true maple syrup.


  11. Interesting, Jackie. Unfortunately, we can NOT find real maple syrup here. This is really sad for Sara who can’t stomach the fake stuff. She brought one bottle back from the US last August, but it’s long gone. Sorry to be so late getting here. Hope your week is going well. We just got back from the beach. I’m trying to sneak in a visit with you before my workshop gets going.

    Hugs from Ecuador,


  12. Oh wow. Who knew that 80% of all maple syrup came from Quebec? Or that it was clear (I confess — I did not know this, even though I grew up seeing the tin cans on the trees in PA and Ohio). What a FUN trip. Thanks for shedding some sweet enlightening. I think I want pancakes. (And I hope you know I was teasing about the concrete/trees in my tweet!)


    1. From growing up in PA and OH, did you ever get to go to a sugar shack? I wonder if they have similar traditions in those areas.
      Ha, sometimes you do have to make an effort to commune with nature in NYC. Luckily Reggie and I live near Prospect Park. 🙂


  13. How interesting! (I also didn’t know about the clear.) Did you get an understanding of grade B vs. Grade A etc??? I see the syrup labeled that way at Whole Foods and I never know the difference.


    1. That’s a great question! I’m sure there is a more detailed explanation, but i understand that the grading system is determined by the translucence. Grade A, with two or three sub-grades, is the lightest and used for eating straight (like on pancakes). Grade B, no sub-grades, is a bit darker and used for cooking or baking. In Canada the grading system is by numbers, but it matches pretty closely to the US standards.


What's on your mind?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s