Red maple leaf tree.

History and Facts of the Maple Syrup Industry in Canada

Did you know that Canada produces almost 80 percent of the world’s maple syrup? The province of Quebec is by far the largest producer of maple products, accounting for 91 percent of Canadian production. New Brunswick, Ontario and Nova Scotia together make up 8 percent. The United States is the second largest world producer, accounting for approximately 24 percent of global production, with 50 percent of U.S production originating from Vermont, 20 percent from New York, and 12 percent from Maine.

So what is so special about maple syrup, you might ask? Maple syrup, also known in Canada as liquid gold, is a truly special product. It’s a sweet, delicious syrup that is made from tapping the sap of maple trees. It is a staple food in the Canadian diet and is one of the most popular products in the world. Most people use it as a condiment on top of pancakes and waffles, but it also tastes great on bacon, donuts, cookies, fudge, taffy and in drinks. In this article, we will dig deeper into the history, production and exporting of maple syrup, as well as its health benefits, and why and how it’s associated to the Canadian identity.

A hand holding a red Canadian maple leaf.
Source: Nong Vang from Unsplash

History of Maple Syrup

The first known people to have ever produced maple syrup are the Indigenous peoples living in the northeast part of North America. This happened long before the first European settlers arrived. Indigenous peoples extracted sap from maple trees and would use it as a source of high-calorie food in the winter months when food was hard to find. They also used it as a sweet water to cook venison, which might have later established the culinary technique of maple-cured meats.

Indigenous peoples called the “sugaring off” period when sap was collected the “maple moon” or “sugar month”. This period would start on the first full moon of spring. They would celebrate the day with a Maple Dance. The tradition of sugaring off became established in communities of the deciduous forests of North America and has survived to the present day.

Indigenous woman collecting sap from a maple tree.
Source: Gwen Tuinman

Early Indigenous Methods & European Colonists Methods

Early Indigenous methods of sap collection involved cutting a V shape into the bark of a maple tree. They would place a wedge at the bottom of the cut and let the sap flow into a bucket placed at the base of the tree. Sometimes, Indigenous peoples made these buckets out of wood hollowed out with a hatchet. They use these every year. Others were made of birch bark and were only used for one season. The sap will be collected and slowly boiled until it becomes syrup. At this point, they would allow it to cool and it would be kept in buckets. Sap was usually collected and boiled by the women of these tribes.

Maple sap drips into a bucket.
Source: The Canadian Press

When European settlers came to the area, they learned how to tap maple trees from the Indigenous peoples. The collaboration with the Europeans was essential for Indigenous folks, because the trading and production of maple syrup was their only source of income during colonization. Instead of using a wedge to extract the sap, they would drill holes in the trees using augers. They would then insert wooden spouts into the holes and hang buckets from them to collect sap. The sap was then transported to a sugar shack where it was boiled down to syrup in large metal kettles hung over a fire. Over time, change in evaporation methods decreased the amount of time it took to boil the sap. The transportation of the syrup to the sugar shack was also improved to make work more comfortable and efficient.

Harvesting Maple Sap

In autumn, maple sugar lays down concentrated sugar in the rays of the tree. These sugars mature during winter and are harvested while frost is still in the ground. The sap flow begins in early spring as temperatures rise above 0 degrees at daylight, followed by below-freezing nights. Within the tree, pressures created by temperatures above 0 degrees Celsius create a natural sap flow. When the tree’s internal pressure is greater than the pressure outside, its sap will flow out of a tap drilled into the tree. The clear sap rushes out of these taps and into the sap collection system.

As the day goes on, pressure in the tree drops and the sap flow slows down and stops. Negative pressure is found within the tree and begins to absorb water through its root system. This process continues for six weeks between March and April. At the end of that period, the sap develops a cloudy appearance, and the sugar content comes off automatically. In the height of the sugaring season, sap contains between 2-5 percent sugar. During the maple harvest, a tree releases about 7 percent of sap.

Sugar shack
Source: Quebec City Tourism

There are various methods people use to gather sap. The traditional bucket collection, although still being used in the Maple Belt, is being replaced by a vacuum tubing system that reduces labour and creates a cleaner environment for sap collection. Usually, these systems transport the sap straight from the trees to one or more collection points, from which sap is transported for processing.

Once the sap is collected, the raw material is reduced by evaporation to remove excess water. It takes 30 to 45 litres of maple sap to produce 1 litre of pure maple syrup. The trees on one hectare of land can carry 250 litres.

Exporting of Maple Syrup

In 2016, there were over 11,000 maple farms in Canada and 47 million taps. Altogether, those farms produced 12.2 million gallons of syrup, accounting for 75 percent of the world’s maple syrup. Quebec, with over 7,800 farms and 42 million taps, produced 11.2 million gallons in 2016. Quebec represents 92 percent of the total Canadian production. The rest of the Canadian product came from New Brunswick (4 percent), Ontario (3 percent) and Nova Scotia (1 percent). The value of maple products made during 2016 amounted to $487 million.

Red maple leaf tree.
Source: Jesse Gardner from Unsplash

Canada’s portion of the world’s maple syrup production increased by 225 percent from 2006 to 2016. However, its share of world production feel from 80 percent to 75 percent between 2015 to 2016 due to increased competition in the United States.

In 2016, over 45 million kg of maple products were exported with a value of $381 million. Quebec exports a whopping 95 percent of Canada’s maple products. Canadian maple products are exported to over 50 countries. The biggest export market is the United States, to which Canadian producers send 65 percent of total exports. Other buyers include Germany (11 percent), Japan (7 percent), the U.K (4 percent), Australia (4 percent), and France (4 percent).

Grading System of Maple Syrup

Maple syrup is graded according to colour, flavour and density. In Canada, the United States, and Europe, “Grade A” maple syrups are broken down into four categories: golden colour and delicate taste; amber colour and rich taste; dark colour and robust taste; very dark colour and strong taste. If a syrup does not meet those standards, it’s considered “Canada processing grade.” Maple syrup must be between 66 to 68.9 degrees on the Brix scale, which measures the sugar content in liquids. Anything less or more cannot be graded and sold as pure maple syrup.

Maple syrup in glass bottles.
Source: Eduardo Vazquez from Unsplash

In the early 1970s, the traditional buyers of maple syrup were large food companies. When the U.S Food and Drug Administration lowered the minimum volume of maple syrup that must be listed as an ingredient in products sold as “maple syrup” or “maple sugar” from 15% to 2%, sales dropped dramatically and the industry experienced major problems. Efforts were made to develop a new market aimed at consumers. Growth in that market restored the industry.

Maple syrup is mainly served on pancakes and is considered a condiment. However, you can also use it to prepare sauces, glazes and vinaigrettes, marinades, and in baking.

Supply Management of Maple Syrup in Quebec

The production of maple syrup in Quebec is controlled by the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers (FQMSP), established in 1966. This organization manages the province’s supply of syrup, which changes every year based on uncertain weather conditions, adjusting the price accordingly. In the 1990s, the federal government granted FQMSP the authority over the sale, pricing and exporting of syrup. FQMSP sets yearly quotas for all producers. It also tries to level the price of syrup through its Global Strategic Reserve, two large warehouses in Laurierville and Saint-Louis-de-Blandford, Quebec. All of the syrup in the province comes through these warehouses, where than 60 million pounds of reserve maple syrup is held in barrels. In years when production is low, syrup from the reserve is introduced into the market to offset short supply, therefore lowering prices raised by high demand.

Maple syrup in a metal kettle over a fire.
Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia

Not all producers of maple syrup agree with FQMSP’s control over supply management. Unsatisfied that they are required by law to work with a syndicate that has control over their production, some try to avoid the FQMSP by selling syrup on their own, which the FQMSP says is illegal activity.

Representation of Canadian Identity

The saying “as Canadian as maple syrup” demonstrates the degree to which the production of maple products is associated with the Canadian identity. The Canadian maple leaf, for example, is at the center of Canada’s National Flag. Maple syrup and maple products are sold all over the country, particularly in tourist shops and are commonly given as gifts.

Cabane a sucre in Quebec, Canada.
Source: Dominique Caron from Unsplash

For French Canadians, going to cabane a sucre is a cultural tradition that still remains popular even today. In the height of Catholicism until the mid 1950s when the sugar season coincided with Lent, a period of fasting before Easter, sugar shacks were popular places to celebrate the end of winter and the beginning of warmer spring temperatures. Every year in the spring, Canadians gather for le temps des sucres (maple season) on maple farms to enjoy a meal, listen to traditional music, and eat taffy on snow. The traditional meal consists of ham, an omelette, pea soup, baked beans, sausages, potatoes,  pancakes, and crispy pork rinds, all dipped in maple syrup if wanted.

In Ontario, children often visit sugar shacks on school field trips or with their families in the spring. There, they learn how syrup is made and taste freshly made maple products. Maple syrup festivals are a big thing every year between the months of March and April.

Health Benefits of Maple Syrup

High quality maple syrup is used all around the world and is highly known for its health benefits.

Maple syrup is a pure, natural sweetener. It is rich in vitamins and nutrients which help boost your immune system. Its antioxidant properties also help to protect your body from free radicals. Some of the essential nutrients found in maple syrup are zinc, potassium, manganese, calcium, iron, magnesium, thiamine, and riboflavin.

Manganese is essential to ensure a normal function of your muscles and helps produce energy. Calcium helps strengthen your bones and contributes to healthy teeth.

Maple syrup drizzled on top of pancakes.
Source: nikldn from Unsplash

Riboflavin is needed to ensure the normal function of your metabolism. Magnesium lowers the risk of getting heart disease. Potassium is essential to maintain a healthy blood pressure.

Maple syrup also contains a high amount of zinc, which is essential for a lot of functions in your body. It’s hugely beneficial for a healthy heart. It is also an important antioxidant which is needed for cellular growth and regeneration. 1/4 cup of high quality maple syrup covers over 40 percent of your daily zinc needs, and 100 percent of your daily manganese needs.

The Canadian maple sugar is one of the most popular products in the world and is also a much healthier alternative to regular sugar.


The next time we drizzle maple syrup on top of our pancakes and waffles, we can be sure that we support one of the oldest industry sectors in the world and we will experience the uniqueness of a natural product which brings the taste of the Canadian summer into our homes.

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