The Salt
10:27 am
Sun February 2, 2014

Sap Discovery Could Turn Syrup-Making Upside Down

Originally published on Mon February 3, 2014 11:51 am

Last year researchers at the University of Vermont announced something that could change the way we think about Vermont — or at least how it produces its famous maple syrup.

The time-honored method calls for inserting a tap near the bottom of a tall, mature maple tree. At the end of February, the tree thaws, and voila: Sap starts flowing out the spigot at the bottom.

But in 2010, these researchers were testing ways to gather sap from mature trees when they noticed something unusual.

One of the trees was missing most of its top, but the sap was still flowing. And flowing. And flowing.

That meant sap didn't flow exclusively from top to bottom from older trees, which is what everyone thought — for centuries.

Sap was coming up — from the ground. The size of the tree was irrelevant.

Laura Sorkin, a writer and co-owner of a large maple syrup operation in northern Vermont, described the study in Modern Farmer magazine.

The researchers tested the discovery on maple saplings growing near their lab, Sorkin tells NPR's Rachel Martin. They lopped off the tops, capped them with a tube and put them under vacuum pressure.

The small trees produced large amounts of sap, proving you don't need old trees to make syrup.

"It had never occurred to anyone," Sorkin says. "It's just always been done this way."

The discovery means sugar makers could plant dense rows of saplings and harvest the sap, essentially creating a maple sugar farm.

"Aside from harvesting fish from the sea, pretty much everything else that we eat comes from neatly planted, nicely managed row crops grown in fields," Sorkin says. "Maple syrup, on the other hand, is something we head off into the wild forest to get. Vermonters, I think, would be very reluctant to give that up."

A sap farm would take the romance out of maple syrup harvesting, Sorkin says. "There's no reason why it shouldn't be the same for maple syrup," she says, "but still, everyone that I mention this to, their reaction, it's quite visceral: 'What? That's wrong!' "

With a farm system, sugar makers could expand their operations without buying expensive new land, Sorkin says. The price of syrup would likely stay the same, though; despite higher yields for smaller parcels of property, the investment in labor and equipment would be hefty.

But the taste would stay the same.

"I would just have to say, ambrosia," says Sorkin. "It's sweet, but it's so much more than that. When combined with things like cream and butter for something like a maple pudding, there's nothing else like it."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There are some rules in the natural world: rain falls from clouds, trees grow up from the ground and syrup flows out of big, old trees. Well, that last rule turns out not to be so hard and fast. In 2010, researchers from the University of Vermont were testing ways to gather sap from a mature tree when something unusual happened. All the moisture in the tree dried up by the sap was still flowing. Which meant sap didn't flow exclusively top to bottom from really old trees, which is what everyone had thought for centuries. Sap must have been coming up from the ground. And it didn't matter if the tree was old or just a sapling. The researchers published their findings last year and it is starting to ripple through the community of sugar makers.

LAURA SORKIN: It had never occurred to anyone and it's just always been done this way.

MARTIN: This is Laura Sorkin of Vermont. She recently wrote a piece on this in Modern Farmer magazine. The discovery is important, she says, because it means you could create a syrup farm of sorts.

SORKIN: You can densely plant the saplings in a row, and when it comes time for the freeze-thaw cycles, they would lop off the top, cap it off, put vacuum on it and put a tube in and that would basically get your sap as opposed to getting it from a mature tree.

MARTIN: But Sorkin says that takes some of the romance out of maple syrup harvesting.

SORKIN: Aside from harvesting fish from the sea, pretty much everything else that we eat comes from neatly planted, nicely managed row crops grown in fields. Maple syrup, on the other hand, is something that, you know, we head off into the wild forest to get it. Vermonters, I think, would be very reluctant to give that up.

MARTIN: Most of the rest of the food we eat is grown on farms.

SORKIN: There's no reason why it shouldn't be the same for maple syrup. But still, you know, everyone that I mention this to, their reaction is, it's quite visceral. They're just, what? That's wrong.

MARTIN: And is this whole tapping trees thing worth it anyway? I had to ask. Can you just explain to me what it tastes like, really good maple syrup?

(LAUGHTER)

SORKIN: I would just have to say ambrosia.

MARTIN: Ambrosia.

SORKIN: It's sweet but it's so much more than that. When combined with things like cream and butter for something like a maple pudding, there's nothing else like it.

MARTIN: Well, now I don't care where it comes from. That's sugar maker Laura Sorkin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.