Monday, February 24, 2014

Syrup is sweet, but how about Sap?

A shortened version of this article appears in this week's Tompkins Weekly newspaper.

            Living in the Finger Lakes, the change from winter to spring is often quite dramatic and enthusiastically welcomed by residents who are sometimes a bit weary after months of bundling up, scraping car windows, and shoveling sidewalks. While the signs of the seasonal change can come in many forms, perhaps there is no better pulse than the process of maple sugaring, which quite literally ebbs and flows based on the changing of temperate. Warm days above freezing coupled with colder nights below 32 degrees F mean the sap is flowing - and spring is coming.

            This way of welcoming change - the harvest of maple sap and the boiling of it into syrup has long been a human tradition, from the native people that walked these lands for thousands of years to the first European settlers to the modern sugarmakers of today. While the tools and technology have changed significantly over time, the basic process is still the same. Tap trees, collect sap, boil, and store. While today syrup is often seen as a luxury item fit only for drizzling over pancakes, for most of its history it was a staple, a necessity. During the time of Revolutionary War, it was even radical. The ability of colonists to make their own sugar meant they could avoid purchasing cane sugar from the crown, a practice that was seen as a form of rebellion against the empire.

            Today, the sugaring world is still changing - and it will continue to change for many years to come. The biggest factor at this point in time is climate change, which is predicted to have several problematic effects on sugaring; mostly notably on the timing of sap flow. Where traditionally mid to late February is common as the time to tap trees (and appears to be holding true in 2014), there is some evidence to suggest that tapping times will generally be earlier, with one research paper co-authored by Brian Chabot at Cornell estimating that tapping may be around Christmas time by 2100. Yet regardless of when it flows, sap will continue to flow for a long time to come.

            Tapping trees is a project that is relatively easy and inexpensive to get into. All one needs is a few sugar maple trees, a drill, a spout, and some sort of collection vessel. On a good year, it can be expected that a tree 12" in diameter or more will produce somewhere in the range of 8 - 10 gallons of sap. At a ratio of 40 gallons of sap to one gallon of syrup, this means that 5 or 6 trees could theoretically yield about a gallon of syrup, per season. But in many cases the amount of time required to boil sap into syrup makes this process impractical for the homeowner, on a small scale. Thus many people do not tap trees, choosing instead to support a local sugarmaker for syrup.

            One thing that anyone with a few healthy sugar maples should consider is tapping for the sap alone, offers a chance to connect to the seasonal change of nature as well as enjoy some potential health benefits. In fact, tapping trees and just drinking the sap may be one of the easiest and most nutritious things to do locally this time of year - especially in your own backyard. The Director of Cornell's Maple Program Mike Farrell profiles this potential in his new book, The Sugarmakers Companion.

            Maple sap, along with other tree saps, has long been viewed as a spring tonic by many cultures around the globe. It is usually about 98 percent water and 2 percent sugar, but little known is that it is also loaded with minerals, nutrients, enzymes, antioxidants, phenolic compounds, and more. Worldwide, there have actually been three International Symposiums on Tree Sap Utilization, (1995, 2000, and 2005) where scientists from Japan, Korea, Russia, and Europe discussed the use of tree sap as an end product – most birch.

            In Korea specifically, there is a long history of sap consumption and most comes from the Acer mono, a maple which is called gorosoe, meaning "the tree that is good for the bones" in Korean. This is likely due to the high mineral content in sap, most notably calcium, magnesium, and potassium. There are even places in Korea where people can take weekend retreats, visiting the mountains and consuming as much as 5 gallons of sap per day while sitting on heated floors with conditions similar to a sauna. The idea is to detox the bad stuff and unclog the body from a long winter. In Korean markets, Maple Sap usually sells for $5 - 10/gallon.

            While much of the medicinal benefits of sap around the world have focused on birch, several studies from Korea have cited the potential benefits of maple sap consumption in lab settings for treating osteoporosis, hypertension, and even curing hangovers. Most analysis has been done on the basic content of the maple sap, which has over 50 vitamins and minerals, and also a number of probiotics similar to those found in yogurts and other dairy products. More research would be useful, but it’s hard to argue against the idea of drinking sap as a healthy and good option for the springtime; after all, it is water filtered in a tree and loaded with a bunch of nutritional compounds. It may well be the cleanest water some people will ever be able to drink.

If wanting to enjoy sap, pick up a paint strainer at a local hardware store to help keep the sap clean

If you are interested in collecting and enjoying sap, its important to note that while sap is essentially sterile when inside the tree, it can quickly become contaminated. The choice of container for collection is thus very important. Maple buckets and jugs (a milk jug can make a great collection vessel) should be thoroughly cleaned before use. The best sap runs during the beginning and middle of the season, but as the temperature warms toward the end of March and into April it's best to stop drinking it straight. Sap can be stored in the fridge (or outside if below freezing) for several days and should generally be treated like milk; best consumed within one week of it coming from the tree. And while some of the good bacteria may be killed, to be extra safe some choose to boil the sap to effectively pasteurize it and render it completely safe.

Vermont Sweetwater sells a maple seltzer and other maple sodas.
            Sap can be drank straight from the tree of course, but can also be used to make a wonderful carbonated beverage with a home soda-maker. Simply replace the water with sap, adding as much or as little carbonation as you'd like. It can also be utilized for cooking in soup, stews, and other recipes that call for water. It also makes a wonderful base for brewing beers.

            The straight consumption of sap is an excellent option for people who want to tap some trees but aren’t interested in the time, labor, and fuel to boil it into syrup. It offers an opportunity to harvest the fruits of a long winter and connect to the cycles of the season. While the entire process of making syrup takes considerable energy, sap is just the opposite - it is really simple and takes very little time to tap, collect, and consume sap in a variety of ways. So – support your local sugarmaker for syrup, and try collecting some your own sap this season!