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Canada Maple Syrup

Canadian Maples Festivals Ontario Toronto market with shelves of Canada maple syrup products.

Canada maple syrup is so common now that we Canadians often do not appreciate its uniqueness. You can buy maple syrup in various grades in most grocery stores in Canada. (St Lawrence Market in Toronto and PLanet Organic in Mississauga have wonderful organic maple syrups as well).

Nor do we Canadians appreciate how prominently maple syrup features in Canada's economy, or its history, until we see it through other eyes. Because sugar bushes (maple orchards) are very busy places during the spring syrup collection time, many associations host Maple Syrup Festivals that demonstrate how to make Canadian maple syrup. One such festival takes place each year at Bradley Museum in Mississauga, Ontario where I took these pictures. See also Fall Colors page.

As Canadian as Maple Syrup, Eh?  Making Canada Maple Syrup

drilling hole for spile in maple tree CanadaPolar bears, beavers, Anne Murray and hockey, back bacon, mounties, Wayne Gretzkey and ice wines: All these and dozens more have been publicly deemed 'as Canadian as maple syrup'. But how Canadian is maple syrup, really? What makes it the pinnacle of all things Canadian?

It turns out that maple syrup has tenure, that's why. When the earliest settlers arrived in Canada, they found that Native Indian tribes had long been making a syrupy sweetener from the liquid that they collected each spring from maple trees. (Unless, of course, the settlers happened to be in the northern reaches of Upper and Lower Canada, where the winters are too cold.)

Since then, the annual collecting of sap to 'sugar off' into maple syrup has been part of our heritage. The settlers knew maples were a good source for lumber, or shade trees that turned wonderful colours in Autumn.

But these New World trees were sugar maples (Acer saccharum) and red maples (Acer rubrum). They thrived in the climate of the St. Lawrence Basin -- not too warm, not too cold -- with perfect conditions to produce the sweet sap each spring from sugars stored in their roots.spile in maple tree to collect sap for maple syrup

When daily temperatures rise above freezing, then drop several degrees below zero at night, the sap starts to rise, and it's time to start tapping. The settlers learned how to tap the trees by watching the Natives, how they made slits in the bark, then pushed in a tube (maybe a bit of reed or hollowed twig) to channel the sap into a container.

And while the Natives collected the dripping sap in a hollowed-out log or a birch bark bowl that they'd placed by the base of the tree, the settlers collected sap in wooden buckets that were hung on the tree from a nail.

Instead of boiling off the sap's water by adding hot rocks, or simply letting it freeze then removing the ice as the Natives did, the settlers boiled sap in cast iron pots.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, maple syrup was the colonists' major sweetener, and especially welcome in late winter, when last summer's honey stocks were running low, and flower season was a long way off. Each family worked together to make their supply, plus a treat: Pour hot, thick maple syrup onto clean snow and voila! Maple taffy.

old s tone fireplace for making maple candy mississauga Canada As technologies evolved, maple syrup became faster, cheaper and easier to produce, not only yielding a better product (sap tends to become cloudy and off-flavour unless it's processed within 24 hours after leaving the tree), but also increasing the total output. With the advent of tin came flat-bottomed pots that better distributed the heat and shortened the boiling time (maple sap is about 97 percent water).

With modern plastic tubing to collect the sap, and vacuum pumps to move it along faster, the wagon hauls from sugar bush to sugar shack were a thing of the past. New evaporators shortened boiling times even further.Today, Canada has some of the world's most innovative systems in maple technology, and produces 85 percent of the world's maple syrup. It's Canada's second largest single-commodity export (frozen French fries lead the field).

pail hung from Maple tree collecting sap in spring Since each sugar maple 40-100 or more years old will yield 35-50 litres/9-13 gallons of sap over the 6-week tapping season (about 1/10 of its sugar reserves), and since it takes about 40 litres/10.5 gallons of sap to make one litre (1/4 US gallon) of syrup, a sugar bush (maple orchard) needs about 1,000 trees to be profitable.

There are more than 10,300 maple syrup producers in Canada, with more than 33,680,000 taps. Quebec, at 93 percent, is the largest producer, followed by Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. According to Statscan (Statistics Canada), in 2005, the Canadian industry produced 6.1 million gallons of maple syrup, worth nearly $175.1 million.

The maples tapping season starts around mid-January, when producers start setting out sap lines. When the sap starts running, they have to be boiling off 24 hours a day, says Sheila Wiebe, natural heritage education specialist for Bronte Creek Provincial Park.

"The season runs until the buds turn into leaves, and the sap gets a 'bud-y' flavour," she says. Given the short and very busy sap season, the best way to learn about making maple syrup is to head out to a maple syrup festival, like the one at Bronte Creek.

On March Break and March weekends, park interpreters don period costumes and demonstrate how to tap the trees, then turn the sap into syrup and candy. "We show the earliest methods right up to 1899, which is the era of the park farmhouse," says Wiebe. "We show how to measure the tree, and where to place the spile -- that's what the tap, or spigot, is called," she says. "Anyone would enjoy the festival, from 3-year-olds to seniors and young couples just out for the day."

boiling maple syrup using traditional method hot rocks Bronte Creek's Maple Syrup Festival began nine years ago, a 'filler' for the park's shoulder season (too early for camping, and often too late for winter sports), Wiebe says. Last March, some 28,000 visitors from around the Greater Toronto Area dropped by to try their hand at using a brace and bit to drill a hole in a stump, have a wagon ride, tour the 100-year-old farm house, visit the new calves in the barn and buy maple treats from the gift shop. "It's a day in the fresh air. It's a step back in time," says Wiebe. "And if there's still snow, you can ski."

There's Maple Magic in Mississauga, too, at Bradley Museum, where staff began tapping trees the last week of February. Maple Magic began 13 years ago, says Scott Gillies, Museums of Mississauga marketing and fundraising coordinator. "At that time, the public school board offered a similar program that could only accommodate their own students. We wanted a program that would be open to the general public, and available to all."

Last year, the March (spring) Break event drew about 4,000 area residents over the nine days, says Gillies. "We get all ages, from grandparents to babes in arms, and across all cultures. Newcomers to Canada are fascinated by the [maple syrup] process," he says.

"We're not a full sugar bush -- the syrup we produce is for demonstration only -- but we have about 30 maple trees on site [a legacy] from the Bradleys," says Gillies. "We don't consume this syrup, as the cast iron kettles alter the flavour. And in Bradley House, we show how to make maple sugar." horses with wagon in Mississauga Canada maple syrup festival And when these festivals are winding down, the king of all maple festivals has its one-day celebration at Elmira, a few kilometres north of Waterloo.

The Elmira Maple Festival began in 1965, and in 2000, this festival set (and still holds) the Guinness World Record as the largest: A whopping 66,529 visitors turned out to tour the sugar bush, scour the craft and vendor booths and eat a whole lot of pancakes with maple syrup.

"That first year, we hoped to get 2,500 visitors," says one staff member at the Woolwich Township office. "We got 10,000. In 2000, when the record was set, it was a perfect day. The weather was absolutely beautiful."

"Last year, it was cool and rainy, but we still had 50,000 come out, though they didn't stay outdoors as long," she says. "The indoor venues were very busy, though. More than 2,000 volunteers from the community meet throughout the year to make this festival possible."

A number of events, including a dog show, a toy show, and an antiques and collectibles show and sale take place over the festival weekend, and more than a hundred vendors set up shop. The Elmira Maple Syrup Festival itself is Saturday [April 2, 2011], with bus shuttles out to a real sugar bush -- a working farm -- to see the operation from start to sweet-treat finish.

Maple sap boils in two iron pots in Mississauga CanadaMaple Syrup Grades Canada

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency monitors the safety and quality of maple syrup and ensures producers meet federal standards. Containers of maple syrup must be marked Maple Syrup, and include the volume, grade and colour class, and the packer's name and address.
Canada No. 1
* Extra Light (very delicate maple flavour for pancakes, waffles)
* Light (delicate maple flavour for French toast, dessert topping, breakfast cereals)
* Medium (distinct maple flavour for glazing, sweetening)
Canada No. 2 (may be labelled Ontario Amber for farm gate sales only)
* Amber and Ontario amber (stronger maple flavour for baking, flavouring)
Canada No. 3
* Dark (commercial use only)


What's in Maple Syrup? Nutrition Notes Sugar Substitute

tee pee lean-to outside Canada maple syrup boiling demonstration


A 50 ml (1/4 cup) serving of maple syrup has 167 calories, 43 grams sugar, 117 mg potassium, 7 mg sodium, six percent of the recommended daily amount of calcium and thiamine and two percent of the RDA for magnesium and riboflavin.

* Substitute 3/4 cup maple syrup plus 1/4 teaspoon baking soda for each cup of granulated sugar, and reduce the amount of liquid by 3 tablespoons.


* Substitute 3/4 cup maple sugar for every cup of white sugar. Decrease the amount of liquid by 3 tablespoons. (Maple sugar is maple syrup which has been dried and granulated.)

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