I disdained maple syrup for the first 25 years of my life. It was gloppy, made my teeth hurt and the boy I was forced to sit next to in second grade always smelled of that sickly sweet stuff.
Then I started working at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor. There I was reintroduced to foods I thought I knew but had never really tasted. We tasted real maple syrup against the well-known brand and my mind was blown. This syrup was an entirely different animal, and I suddenly understood what all the fuss was about.
It is around this time of year when sugarers start tapping their trees. “Warm days; cold nights” is the sugar shack refrain.
Sugarers — maple syrup makers — bore a hole into the trunk of a maple tree, insert a tap, and slowly collect the sap as it travels from the roots and trunk up to the trees to feed the new growth.
A sugar maple is tapped when its trunk is at least 10 inches in diameter, usually 25 years old. The sap is collected, originally in buckets which hang from the tap. Large-scale syrup production now uses plastic tubing that runs to large vacuum tanks. Sap is cooked down in the sugarhouse in a large flat pans, often over a wood or propane fire. And those fires are going all night to reduce the 40 gallons of maple sap it takes to yield 1 gallon of maple syrup.
It is then graded: Grade A Fancy, Grade A Amber, Grade A Dark Amber and Grade B. The lighter the syrup the more delicate the flavor. Not being a fancy lady, I go for Grade B every time because I want the dark, caramel-y flavors.
And that is why it is so expensive — old trees, lots of sap needed and lots of energy to reduce that sap to delicious maple syrup. That’s why, until I was 25, I had encountered only high fructose corn syrup colored with caramel and flavored with “Industrial Maple Flavor B.” But I’ve never looked back and am so thankful that our neighbors, Margo and Allen Ammons at Leelanau Maple Sugar Bush, spend their late winter boiling away.