Going to the Maple Sugar Time Festival in the Indiana Dunes is one family tradition I started when the kids were little. Since we missed it last year, my daughter insisted we not miss it this time around. At the end of winter, the sap rises in the trees as they prepare for spring. That is the time to tap the sugar maple trees for their sap, which contains about 1 to 5% sugar. That’s not enough for their sap to taste really sweet but definitely enough to boil it down to create syrup.
Every year, for the first two weekends in March, the National Park Service sets up a short trail in the woods of the Indiana Dunes to demonstrate how maple sugar has been made through time, from the Native Americans all the way to how it is done today.
This picture shows how Native Americans tapped the sugar maple trees before metal tools and pots were available, using wooden tools, vessels made of bark, and maybe a clay pot.
Steam rises as a stone, heated in a wood-burning fire, is placed in these wooden troughs. Native Americans would probably have had several troughs like this, in decreasing sizes, to “boil” down the sap.
Obviously this is an arduous process, but it yielded them dark crystallized chunks of sugar.
Those were valuable calories at the end of winter, when supplies were low and nothing was growing yet. They were easy to transport and didn’t spoil.
Here a park ranger “tests” the syrup.
Over time, people have figured out that the ideal consistency for maple syrup is 66% sugar.
Less sugar makes it more likely to spoil. More sugar will have it crystallize, which is what the Native Americans preferred. These days we have fancy tools to measure sugar content; but if you’re doing it the old fashioned way, you can only go by the syrup’s color.