Wisconsin Spring is as Sweet as Syrup
This spring, I enjoyed tapping into Wisconsin’s sweet maple syrup industry. Being very familiar with the delicious treat, I wanted to learn the secrets of syrup production. That’s why I turned to the experts in Albany, Wis.
I first met Jamie Rupp, agriculture educator, and his Albany FFA students at the Christmas tree cutting in November. After introducing themselves, they sweetly handed me a bottle of maple syrup they made as a chapter. After that introduction, Mr. Rupp promised to give me a tour of their operation.
I was thrilled when spring finally arrived and sap started flowing. Weather plays an important role for our syrup producers, which makes each season unpredictable in Wisconsin. The sap flows best when we have below freezing temperatures at night and above freezing temperatures during the day. Once our temperatures get above 60 degrees, trees start saving that sap because they are budding.
Our syrup producers had a later start this year compared to 2018 with most trees being tapped in March. Last year, maple syrup season started on February 18 in Wisconsin and did not end until May 2. In fact, 2018’s season lasted almost a week longer than 2017. We also saw an increase in syrup production and taps. Our syrup producers tapped 750,000 trees last year to produce 225,000 gallons of syrup.
Many may not realize Wisconsin ranks fourth in the nation for syrup production. The diversity of our state’s agriculture industry is truly our greatest strength. Some people tap trees as a hobby, hanging bags from trees. Larger maple syrup producers often use vacuum tubing systems to collect sap. They are all unique to see!
So how do we turn that watery sap into thick, sweet maple syrup? My dad told me stories of how he and his siblings would boil sap in an open pan in the woods. I’ve read about producers who use reverse-osmosis equipment to help remove water from sap. Over in Albany, trees are tapped all across town with help from volunteers. Community members donate their time to cook sap on school grounds so students of all ages can see. The building is hard to miss with steam flowing from the roof and chimney.
The main concept of making syrup is simple: remove water from sap to leave behind natural sugars. The amount of sap needed to make syrup also depends on the season. On average, it takes 40 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup. This year, our syrup producers say the sap has higher levels of natural sugars, so they are using less sap.
Our producers pull out all of the stops to provide safe, wholesome syrup for families. Mr. Rupp demonstrated how they use a Murphy Cup and hydrometer to test the density of syrup. If the syrup is too thick, they can add more sap. If it is too thin, they can continue cooking until the numbers on the hydrometer match the dial on the Murphy Cup.
Once the syrup is cooked to perfection, they add a filtering agent to help capture any unwanted elements and create a pure product. The syrup is pushed through a filter press before being bottled and shared with family and friends. There are three classes of Grade-A pure maple syrup. They are Light Amber, Medium Amber and Dark Amber. Like all aspects of syrup, the color is natural. Typically, the darker the syrup, the stronger its flavor.
Although we only tap into syrup production in the spring, real maple syrup is a versatile, natural sweetener that can be used year-round for breakfast toppings, coffee sweetener, or maybe even as a salad dressing. Seeing the work put into this entire process gave me a whole new appreciation for every drop of sweet syrup poured over my morning pancakes. The Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producers Association has information, including tips for recipes, on their website at wismaple.org.
Kaitlyn Riley is the 71st Alice in Dairyland and serves as the state's official ag ambassador.