The Cycle of Sweetness: From Sap to Maple Syrup

Spile by Jan Fox

Spile, photo by Jan Fox ©

In an ideal world, I’d be able to lay out the process of making maple syrup using nothing but Michigan photos. Unfortunately, I can’t. I should be able to as my family used to sugar when I was a kid. I can only find a couple of the photos my dad took though. Such is life. I find maple sugaring a fascinating subject, so I’ll try and pull off a whirlwind tour of how it gets made. Bear in mind that we are discussing maple syrup here, Mrs. Butterworth, get outta here!

The roots of maple syrup start with the first Americans, and the fact that somewhere along the line, someone discovered that the sap of maple trees is sweet. If you ever get a chance to taste ice-cold sap in the spring, please do! Be warned that once the trees have budded, sap tastes bitter.
The process of sap collection is relatively simple. A hole is drilled in a maple tree and a spile like the one in the photo above is hammered into the hole. A bucket (or buckets) is then hung on the spile into which sap drips. Cold nights and warm days produce the best sap flow. For a few trees, folk will use a larger bucket while the big sugaring operations use a network of plastic lines.

In any case, the sap is collected and stored until such time as you are ready to boil it down (photo part of a great set of pictures!). This takes hours and hours and it takes 30 or 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. Anyone who has ever made this knows that there’s no way sugar and carmel coloring are ever going to equal real maple syrup atop a stack of pancakes.

If all goes well, you will be able to see some or all of the photos featured here at the “sweetcycle” tag on Flickr.

View a Collection from 1940 by Marion Post Wolcott in the Library of Congress

How to Make Maple Syrup from the Michigan Maple Syrup Association

Native American Maple Sugaring: One Drip at a Time on Michigan in Pictures

Great information about Michigan maple syrup and maple syrup events from Absolute Michigan

11 thoughts on “The Cycle of Sweetness: From Sap to Maple Syrup

  1. Hey Eric, Wikipedia says:

    Molasses is a thick syrup by-product from the processing of the sugarcane or sugar beet into sugar. (In some parts of the US, molasses also refers to sorghum syrup.) The word molasses comes from the Portuguese word melaço, which comes from mel mellis, the Latin word for “honey”.


  2. About molasses, in Kentucky, we grow a plant called sorghum to make molasses. It looks like corn in the firlds. The stalk is harvested and squeezed to extract the sorghum sap. It is then cooked down into sorghum molasses. They may make it out of beetor sugar cane, but good molasses is sorghum molasses. When we were kids, we’d go to the field and get a stalk to share. We’d walk home sucking the stalk like candy.


  3. Be sweet like Maple Syrup
    All bitterness will become numb
    And your being will be sweet
    If you don’t trust me
    Try it on your tongue!


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