Without sounding too sappy (pun intended), pure maple syrup is a tasty treat that is not only yummy, but might also provide some health benefits. For example, maple syrup can boost the immune system, ease digestive issues and even keep skin looking younger and healthier. It’s also said to help with muscle recovery and keep bones strong because of its manganese content. What’s more, researchers at the University of Rhode Island found that pure maple syrup can contain compounds that may benefit the body, such as preventing cancer, osteoporosis and diabetes, because it includes phenolics—the same antioxidants found in berries—which can balance blood sugar levels. However, as sweet as this may sound, maple syrup is still basically liquid sugar and a carbohydrate, which means it should be consumed in moderation.
In addition to its possible health benefits, choosing pure maple syrup over other sweeteners or sugary products is beneficial for several reasons. Besides the obvious—it being natural—maple syrup offers great flavor, helps support local businesses and encourages responsible forms of sustainable forestry. Throughout the interesting process from taking pure maple, a renewal sustainable resource, and converting it into maple syrup, sugarmakers work hard to produce the sweet substance that many have come to love.
According to the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association, during the months of January and February, sugar made by the leaves during summer is stored as starch in the root tissues. In February, sugarmakers begin to tap the trees. After the taphole is drilled, a spout with a bucket and hook or tubing attached is placed in the hole and gently tapped in place.
March and April are sugaring season. Spring’s warmer temperatures help sugar maple trees turn stored starch back into sugar, and sap is made as the tree mixes groundwater with sugar (sap is mostly clear water with about two percent sugar, and it takes 40 gallons of sap to make each gallon of maple syrup with a sugar content of 66.9 percent). During the four to six weeks of sugaring season, freezing and thawing temperatures build pressure within the trees, which causes the sap to flow from the tapholes. Next, it’s time to boil the sap. As the water in the sap evaporates, the sap thickens and the sugar caramelizes. When the temperature in the pan reaches 219 F, the syrup is ready to be filtered, adjusted for density and graded for flavor and color.
According to the International Maple Syrup Institute, there are four classifications of Grade A to show the difference in quality, color and flavor of the maple syrup: U.S. Grade A Golden (delicate taste), U.S. Grade A Amber (rich taste), U.S. Grade A Dark (robust taste) and U.S. Grade A Very Dark (strong taste).
There are approximately 300 different natural flavor compounds found in pure maple syrup, and it’s not unusual to experience distinctive tastes such as sugar, caramel, vanilla, chocolate, coffee, nuts, butter or honey, according to the New York Pure Maple website. Also, a maple syrup’s flavor can change depending on the region where the sap is harvested from, as well as soil type, weather conditions and tree genetics. This weekend (and for the next few weekends, too), why not learn firsthand the process of making maple syrup and enjoy the flavors of pure maple syrup at one of the many maple syrup festivals held throughout the United States.
As the home to the largest resource of tappable maple trees in the United States and second only to Vermont in producing maple syrup, it’s no surprise that New York State hosts a large maple syrup event each year. “Maple Weekend is an agritourism event designed to showcase New York’s first agricultural crop of the year, give consumers a chance to meet the people who make this nutrient-filled sweetener and see how syrup is made from the sap of the maple tree,” says Angela Swan, coordinator of the NYS Maple Weekend. “Maple sugaring is a cherished tradition among New York’s farm families and we are excited to share it with our friends, neighbors and visitors.”
In its 22nd year, Maple Weekend, which takes place March 18 to 19 and March 25 to 26, is an event that encourages locals and visitors throughout the state to learn about and enjoy the benefits of maple syrup. During Maple Weekend, 168 maple farms will be open statewide, offering free tours and free samples. According to Swan, many also offer pancake breakfasts, which are available at a per-plate charge. “Every sugar house is different, so be sure to visit more than one to get the full experience,” she says. Swan encourages event attendees to check out the Maple Weekend website to find a maple farm(s) to visit, and this year, each location came up with a tagline to give potential visitors a feel for each individual sugarhouse. “We were excited to learn that of 168 participating locations, no two offer exactly the same experience,” she says. “Each farm is individual to the families or companies hosting the open house.”
If you don’t live in or around the New York State area, you can still get a taste of the sweet stuff by attending one of the many additional maple syrup festivals taking place in the next few weeks throughout the country. Here’s a sampling of the festivals that are on tap:
2017 Maple Syrup Fest (Verges, Minnesota): On April 8, visitors and locals can eat pancakes, learn how to make maple syrup, run or walk a 5K race and so much more.
Maple Syrup Festival at North Park Valley Nature Center (Chicago): This festival, which takes place on March 25, 2017, demonstrates the process of making maple syrup from tapping the tree and collecting the sap, to boiling it into syrup. In addition, attendees can take a walk through the sugar bush, enjoy storytelling, listen to music, make a maple craft and taste real maple syrup.
59th Annual Highland Maple Festival (Monterey, Virginia): Held on the second and third weekends of March, the Maple Festival has been a highly anticipated event since 1958. Visitors are able to observe the process of maple syrup-making, go on a sugar camp tour and enjoy sweet treats like maple donuts, maple-glazed chicken and maple candy. “Locally, the Highland Maple Festival is very important to our community because it is really one of the ‘life bloods’ of our county,” says Dorothy Stephenson, executive director of the Highland County Chamber of Commerce. “The Highland Maple Festival is popular among our visitors because they are able to see firsthand both traditional and contemporary maple syrup-making techniques and see artifacts and methods that date back hundreds of years. Plus, our visitors really enjoy the hospitality shown to them during their time in Highland County. One of the things visitors continuously enjoy about our county and the Highland Maple Festival is the nice local people and culture they encounter during their trip.”
Cunningham Falls Maple Syrup Festival (Thurmont, Maryland): In its 47th year, the festival, which takes place March 11 to 19, features live music from local bands and a range of food options topped with fresh maple syrup. In addition, maple syrup products are available for purchase, and a maple syrup-making demonstration will start every hour and continue throughout each day.
Whitingham Maple Festival (Whitingham, Vermont): On March 25 and 26, seven of the 18 Whitingham sugar makers will open the doors of their sugar houses and introduce to visitors the art and science behind sugar making and the historical importance of “sugaring” in the town. In addition, visitors to the town can enjoy a craft fair, horse-drawn sleigh rides and a pancake breakfast.
Attending a maple syrup festival is a great way to combine family, friends and fun all in one, so be sure to find out if any are taking place in your neck of the woods. And if attending a festival is not an option this season, then why not visit your local grocery store and pick-up some all-natural pure maple syrup and enjoy its sweet taste atop a short (or not so short) stack of pancakes or homemade French toast? It might not be quite the same as attending a maple syrup festival, but it’s sure to leave you with a taste of the sweet life.
Warm weather is almost here! Let the countdown begin, and take advantage of spring with these relaxing activities that are perfect for body and mind.