STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: PS1.B, LS1.C, ESS3.D

CCSS: Literacy in Science: 7

TEKS: 6.9C, 7.5A, 8.3B, B.9B

# Syrup Heist

## AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT how maple syrup producers work to ensure syrup is available year-round.

ILLUSTRATION BY KIRK DOUPONCE

In 2011, a group of thieves snuck into a warehouse in Quebec, Canada. Were they after gold? Priceless works of art? Jewels? No. They’d come to steal maple syrup! Over the next 11 months, the crooks made off with truckloads of the sweet stuff—nearly 2 million liters (528,000 gallons) in all. They’d siphon the syrup from each 205 L (54 gal) barrel. Then they’d refill the barrel with water and return it to the warehouse to cover their tracks.

By the time the thieves were caught, they’d sold nearly $15 million worth of stolen syrup on the black market. The crime was dubbed the “Great Canadian Maple Syrup Heist.” To this day, maple syrup is one of Canada’s most valuable commodities. “Maple syrup is serious business,” says Jean-François Masson, a chemistry professor at the University of Montreal in Quebec, Canada. In 2011, a group of thieves snuck into a warehouse in Quebec, Canada. Were they after gold? Priceless works of art? Jewels? No. They wanted to steal maple syrup! Over the next 11 months, the crooks took truckloads of the sweet stuff. They stole nearly 2 million liters (528,000 gallons) in all. They drained the syrup from each 205 L (54 gal) barrel. They refilled each barrel with water. Then they returned it to the warehouse to cover their tracks. The thieves were finally caught. But they’d already sold nearly$15 million worth of stolen syrup on the black market. The crime was called the “Great Canadian Maple Syrup Heist.” Maple syrup is still one of Canada’s most valuable products. “Maple syrup is serious business,” says Jean-François Masson. He’s a chemistry professor at the University of Montreal in Quebec, Canada.

## THE 2011 MAPLE SYRUP HEIST IS STILL CONSIDERED THE MOST VALUABLE ROBBERY IN CANADIAN HISTORY.

A small bottle of pure maple syrup can cost $15 at the grocery store. You’ll usually find it alongside less expensive imitation syrup made from corn syrup and artificial flavorings. Real maple syrup is made from the sap of the sugar maple tree, a species that only grows in North America. Sap is a watery liquid that carries nutrients and minerals throughout a tree. It takes a lot of time, effort, and equipment to collect maple sap and transform it into syrup. Read on to discover how sugar makers and scientists are working to make sure the world doesn’t run out of this breakfast staple. A small bottle of pure maple syrup can cost$15 at the grocery store. It’s usually found next to less expensive syrup. This imitation syrup is made from corn syrup and artificial flavorings. Real maple syrup is made from the sap of the sugar maple tree. This species grows only in North America. Sap is a watery liquid. It carries nutrients and minerals throughout a tree.

It isn’t easy to collect maple syrup and turn it into sap. The job takes a lot of time, effort, and equipment. Now sugar makers and scientists are working together. They’re trying to make sure the world doesn’t run out of this breakfast staple.

## FROM SAP TO SYRUP

All trees produce sap. But “maples are special,” says Adam Wild, a forest ecologist and co-director of the Cornell Maple Program at Cornell University in New York. Maple sap is naturally sweeter than the sap of other tree species, he says (see Sugar from Sunlight).

All trees produce sap. But “maples are special,” says forest ecologist Adam Wild. He’s the co-director of the Cornell Maple Program at Cornell University in New York. Maple sap is naturally sweeter than the sap of other trees, he says (see Sugar From Sunlight).

ISTOCKPHOTO/GETTY IMAGES (TREE); JAMES MCDONALD/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES (PROCESSING)

TAPPING TREES: Sugar makers attach tubing to maple trees to collect sap (left), which will be processed into syrup (right).

Sap can only be collected from maple trees during sugaring season, which begins in late winter and lasts just four to eight weeks. To get sap from a maple tree, the temperature must alternate between below freezing at night and above freezing during the day. This freeze-thaw cycle creates a buildup of pressure inside the tree. When a farmer taps a tree by drilling a hole in its trunk, that pressure causes the maple sap to flow out. It pours through a spout into a bucket or along tubing into collection tanks.

On average, it takes 151 L (40 gal) of maple sap to create just 4 L (1 gal) of maple syrup. That’s because the sap is 98 percent water and just 2 percent sugar. To make sweet, thick syrup, producers need to boil the mostly tasteless sap until much of the water evaporates into vapor. The sugars start to caramelize. They also undergo a Maillard (muh-YAHR) reaction. This is the same chemical change that makes bread and meat turn brown in the oven. The reaction helps give syrup its golden-brown color and complex flavor. The resulting syrup is about 33 percent water, 66 percent sugar, and 1 percent organic minerals.

People can collect sap from maple trees only during sugaring season. It begins in late winter and lasts just four to eight weeks. To get sap from a maple tree, the temperature must be right. It has to drop to below freezing at night and rise above freezing during the day. This freeze-thaw cycle creates a buildup of pressure inside the tree. A farmer taps a tree by drilling a hole in its trunk. Then that pressure causes the maple sap to flow out. It pours from a spout into a bucket or through tubing into collection tanks.

It takes about 151 L (40 gal) of maple tree sap to create just 4 L (1 gal) of maple syrup. That’s because the sap is 98 percent water and just 2 percent sugar. The sap is mostly tasteless. To make sweet, thick syrup, people boil the sap. Much of the water evaporates into vapor. The sugars start to caramelize. They also undergo a Maillard (muh-YAHR) reaction. The same chemical change makes bread and meat turn brown in the oven, explains Masson. The reaction helps give syrup its golden-brown color and complex flavor. The final product is about 33 percent water, 66 percent sugar, and 1 percent organic minerals.

## BOOMING BUSINESS

Sugar maple trees are found only in parts of Canada and the United States (see Mapping Maples, above). Indigenous peoples were the first to collect the trees’ sap and boil it in clay pots. The tradition of tapping maple trees continued on a small scale for hundreds of years. Today, turning sap into syrup has become a huge industry, concentrated mainly in one region: Quebec. In 2020, this Canadian province produced about 50 million L (13 million gal) of maple syrup—about 73 percent of the world’s total supply.

Sugar maple trees live only in parts of Canada and the United States (see Mapping Maples). Indigenous peoples were the first to collect the trees’ sap. They boiled it in clay pots. For hundreds of years, people continued to tap maple trees on a small scale. Today, turning sap into syrup is a huge industry. It’s based mainly in one Canadian province, Quebec. In 2020, Quebec produced about 50 million L (13 million gal) of maple syrup. That’s about 73 percent of the world’s total supply.

## THE AVERAGE MAPLE FARM IN QUEBEC COLLECTS SAP FROM ABOUT 4,000 TREES. THE BIGGEST FARMS HAVE 150,000 TAPS.

Syrup production varies from year to year. “When Mother Nature is generous, the industry is left with an overflow of maple syrup,” says Hélène Normandin. She’s a spokesperson for Quebec Maple Syrup Producers (QMSP), an organization that establishes the price of Quebec’s syrup and tells more than 11,000 maple farmers how much sap they can harvest each year. QMSP collects the farmers’ excess syrup and stores it in warehouses across Quebec. This massive stockpile is called the Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve. Because the syrup is stored in sterilized, or germ-free, barrels, it’s safe to eat for up to 10 years.

The thieves behind the 2011 maple syrup heist stole barrels from one of the reserve’s smaller warehouses. Each of the barrels was worth about 1,200 U.S. dollars. It was lucky they didn’t target the reserve’s primary warehouse, which is stacked floor-to-ceiling with barrels and spans an area equal to that of five football fields.

Syrup production changes from year to year. “When Mother Nature is generous, the industry is left with an overflow of maple syrup,” says Hélène Normandin. She’s a spokesperson for Quebec Maple Syrup Producers (QMSP). This organization sets the price of Quebec’s syrup. It also tells more than 11,000 maple farmers how much sap they can harvest each year. QMSP collects the farmers’ extra syrup and stores it in warehouses across Quebec. This huge stockpile is called the Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve. The syrup is safe to eat for up to 10 years. That’s because it’s stored in sterilized, or germ-free, barrels.

The barrels in the 2011 maple syrup heist came from the reserve. The thieves stole them from one of the smaller warehouses. Each of the barrels was worth about 1,200 U.S. dollars. Luckily, the thieves didn’t target the reserve’s main warehouse. It’s stacked floor-to-ceiling with barrels, and it covers an area the size of five football fields.

CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

SYRUP STOCKPILE: This warehouse holds a portion of Quebec’s emergency supply of maple syrup.

## A STICKY SITUATION?

Thieves aren’t the only threat to the syrup industry. It’s also being affected by climate change. Sugar maples rely on cool, predictable weather to produce sugary sap. But as temperatures warm, maple forests are becoming hotter and drier. This will cause the sap to become less sweet, says Joshua Rapp, a forest ecologist who directs the Forest Resilience Program for the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

Increased warming can also shorten the sugaring season. That’s what happened in 2021, when warmer weather led to a drop in syrup production. To prevent a shortage, QMSP announced in November that it would release 22.6 million kilograms (50 million pounds) of syrup from the reserve—nearly half its supply.

Thieves aren’t the only danger to the syrup industry. Climate change is also affecting it. Sugar maples need cool, dependable weather to produce sugary sap. But temperatures are warming, and maple forests are becoming hotter and drier. This will cause the sap to become less sweet, says forest ecologist Joshua Rapp. He directs the Forest Resilience Program for the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

Higher temperatures can also shorten the sugaring season. That’s what happened in 2021. Warmer weather led to a drop in syrup production. In November, QMSP made an announcement. To prevent a shortage, it would release 22.6 million kilograms (50 million pounds) of syrup from the reserve. That’s nearly half its supply.

ROLAND REED/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

EARLY SUGARING: An Ojibwe woman collects maple sap in Canada in 1908.

As the climate changes, it’s unclear whether the maple syrup industry will be able to continue producing syrup on such a large scale. Researchers like Wild, the forest ecologist from Cornell, are studying whether syrup producers could tap other types of trees in the Northeast. Each species of tree comes with its own challenges. Some, like birch, have sap with only about half the amount of sugar as maple. Others, like walnut, produce less sap overall. Beech trees don’t create the same internal pressure as maples, so they require suction to remove their sap. And the syrup made from all these trees tastes different than that of sugar maples.

So the next time you drizzle maple syrup over pancakes, waffles, or oatmeal, remember: Making maple syrup isn’t easy—or cheap. But the effort is worth it, says Wild. Because at the end of the day, “you can’t beat the flavor of pure maple syrup.”

As the climate changes, can the maple syrup industry keep producing so much syrup? The answer isn’t clear. Wild, the forest ecologist from Cornell, is studying the problem. He and other researchers want to find whether syrup producers could tap other types of trees in the Northeast. Each tree species comes with different challenges. The sap of trees like birch has only about half as much sugar as maple. Trees like walnut produce less sap overall. Beech trees don’t create the same internal pressure as maples. So suction is needed to remove their sap. And the syrup made from all these trees tastes different from sugar maple syrup.

So when you pour maple syrup over pancakes, waffles, or oatmeal, remember: Making maple syrup isn’t easy—or cheap. But the effort is worth it, says Wild. Because in the end, “you can’t beat the flavor of pure maple syrup.”

## PLANNING INVESTIGATIONS: Give an example of a type of data that scientists could collect to study the impact of climate change on maple trees.

videos (1)
Skills Sheets (4)
Skills Sheets (4)
Skills Sheets (4)
Skills Sheets (4)
Lesson Plan (2)
Lesson Plan (2)
Text-to-Speech