The First Nations are credited with the discovery of maple sap, harvested before the Europeans ventured to the New World. In fact, there’s an old First Nations legend from centuries ago that talks about maple sap. A squirrel was seen bursting with energy after it drank the sap from a tree!
When faced with starvation, the First Nations cut the bark off of maple trees and ate the edible part (known as cambium) between the hardwood and the bark. This led to collecting the sap from the cuts they made. It is thought that they used the sap to cook beans, corn, and game. They also drank maple water for good health. Quite interestingly, the freezing Quebec winters were followed by warmer spring temperatures which caused the sap to flow in the maple trees.
Then in 1536, Jacques Cartier along with his crew who discovered Canada were the first Europeans to try maple sap. Cartier chopped down what he thought was a walnut tree. To his surprise, a sweet-tasting sap flowed from the tree. Known as “couton” by the First Nations, today it’s called a “sugar maple” tree.
Originally, maple sap because of its sugary sweetness was used to make candies and other sweet things. For the next 300 years, the production of maple sap remained the same: 1) people used axes to make 4-inch notches in the trees, 2) the sap was collected in wooden buckets, and (3) the buckets were emptied into a barrel on a sled or wagon pulled by a tractor or horse to the sugar shack for boiling.
Eventually, the procedure changed over time with the use of a wooden sap spout. And instead of an ax, a drill was used and the wooden buckets were replaced by metal containers with lids. An evaporator was invented which allowed for increased amounts of syrup to be made and boosted the quality. No longer did the syrup have to be boiled in an iron pot over a fire.
In the twentieth century, maple syrup surpassed maple sugar in popularity. However, there was a problem in preserving the syrup.
In the 1920s-1930s, the syrup was stored in jars and cans by canning it.
By the 1950s, it could be preserved for an extended amount of time. If the containers were unopened, the shelf life was about 1½-2 years. If opened, the syrup would be good for about a year.
High-tech equipment was developed using metal boilers and taps instead of wood. Then the first maple butter was concocted by boiling the syrup to 112° C. Maple syrup was commonly found on supermarket shelves.
In the 1970s, syrup could be collected with connecting tubing systems instead of the bucket system. With a mechanical pump or natural gravity, the tubes led to larger collector pipes. They moved the sap straight to the sugar shack.
In more recent years, research and innovation supported the creation and marketing of additional maple products including maple water. Scientists identified vitamins and minerals in the syrup. They also discovered a molecule polyphenol called Quebecol which was considered beneficial to human health.
Today, Quebec produces 72% of all of the maple syrup in the world! Maple products are exported to more than 60 countries and 120 million pounds of maple syrup are made each year across Quebec.