12 things you didn't know about maple syrup

They say money doesn’t grow on trees, and they’re right. It grows IN trees, in the form of Canada’s pride and joy: maple syrup. Here are 12 things you probably didn’t know about it...

1. It’s basically antifreeze 
Yep -- the reason trees make the stuff in the first place is to protect their roots from the brutal Canadian Winter. In fact, if you put your syrup in the freezer, and it goes solid, you’ve got some fake syrup on your hands.

Pouring syrup
Flickr/QUOI Media

2. It takes 40 gallons of tree sap to make one gallon of syrup
Once tapped, the sap actually looks like water, and it takes a huge amount of boiling down to produce the silky liquid gold.

3. It looks a lot like you’re making meth
Though in principle, the syrup-making process remains unchanged from colonial days (tap the trees, boil the sap), nowadays though, tubes have replaced buckets, and in February of last year, Illinois police busted a “meth lab” that turned out to be making syrup (it’s still unclear which is more addictive, however).

Syrup choices

4. Quebec has a maple syrup cartel
The province produces roughly 75% of the planet’s maple juice -- so much, that the farmers banded together to create the “Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers”, which is effectively a legal cartel. In fact, to keep prices where they want them, they keep a stockpile known as “the International Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve” (which is probably the most awesome name they could have come up with for it) comprised of four warehouses full of the stuff. Just one of them holds enough syrup to fill 11 Olympic-sized swimming pools. 

5. It’s more expensive than crude oil... and has a huge black market
Grade A syrup currently trades at about $32 per gallon -- approximately 13 times the price of black gold. Naturally, that means there’s a huge underground trade in the stuff, and the Federation frequently carries out sting operations, staging illegal syrup deals to try and catch smugglers. 

6. It was the cause of the most awesome heist ever
In the largest agricultural theft of all time, thieves stole 6 million pounds of syrup ($18 million worth) from the Strategic Reserve over the course of a year, storing it -- we’re forced to assume -- in some kind of giant waffle. It took authorities two whole months just to figure out how much had been taken, but eventually everyone involved was caught. A movie is in the works starring Jason Segel.

Sugar making Native Canadians
Wikimedia Commons

7. It was invented by Native Canadians with tomahawks, who got the idea from squirrels
During sugar season (otherwise known as “Spring” to soft Southerners) the North American squirrel often uses its huge front teeth to tap sweet, sweet sap. The aboriginals noticed this, and used hand-axes to get in on the action themselves. When someone inevitably tried cooking with the stuff, it boiled down, and the rest is history. They even developed rituals around it, marking the “Sugar Moon” (the first full moon of Spring) with a Maple Dance.

8. It helped end slavery
In 1790, Thomas Jefferson threw his full weight behind the "maple sugar scheme". Its lofty goal? As quoted by its inventor Dr. Benjamin Rush, “to lessen or destroy the consumption of West Indian sugar, and thus indirectly to destroy negro slavery”. In all the years leading up to the American Civil War, maple syrup & sugars were increasingly used by abolitionists -- in fact, until the 1930s, the US produced far more than even Canada for this reason.

Syrup jars
Flickr/My Lil' Rotten

9. It suffered grade inflation
Maple syrup comes in grades, and has done so for decades. “A” is lighter, and less rich. “B” is darker, and more flavorful. Unfortunately, to Joe Consumer, “B” just sounds like the silver medal. For this reason, it’s often less expensive, despite tasting way more syrupy and intense. It’s gotten so bad that the Vermont state government has decreed that ALL its syrup will be classed as grade A, leaving the label to tell you about the flavor. 

10. NY frequently smells of it, and it’s a mystery as to why
In both 2005, and 2009 the Office of Emergency Management was inundated with reports of a syrupy smell covering the city. Mayor Bloomberg stepped in, and started an investigation. The culprit? A New Jersey artificial flavor plant. Or SO THEY THINK. Because last September, the smell was reported again, and this time they don’t know where it came from... dun dun duuh!

Syrup jars
Flickr/Ano Lobb

11. Your pee can smell of it (if you’re super unlucky)
“Maple syrup urine disease” (MSUD) is a real thing, and it’s no joke. Sure, your pee smells of delicious, delicious syrup, but it's also probably fatal. It’s a thankfully recessive genetic condition caused by amino acid buildup, and it brings with it brain damage, comas, and cognitive disabilities IF you don’t die. 

12. It’s Canada’s awesome way of saying thank you
At the Turin Olympics in ’06, a Canadian cross-country skier broke a ski pole during her run. It looked like she was out. Then, the nearby Norwegian coach graciously gave her a replacement, and she went on to win silver... while the Norwegian skier came in forth. To thank the coach, the people of Canada started the Maple Syrup Project, sending donated cans of the sweet stuff to him. In the end, he received a little over five tons. He had never tasted it before.