Maple syrup vacuum tubing system in front of a sugarhouse
LAND Winter 2020

This article is featured in the Winter 2020 issue of LAND magazine. Click here to find out more.

Move over pancakes. Maple syrup may start wow’ing beer lovers. That’s the hope of maple syrup researcher Aaron Wightman. In a recent interview with LAND, Wightman revealed the latest discoveries made by his Cornell Maple Program team.

LAND: Did you grow up farming or sugaring?

AW: I grew up on my family’s maple farm in western New York, just outside of Wellsville. It’s a 65-acre property, very remote, and surrounded by farms and forests. We still tap about 500 trees.

LAND: How did you learn tapping?

AW: We also own a nearby farm, where my father grew up. He learned maple sugaring from his father and I learned from my father. Tapping is when you use a hammer to tap a spile into a hole that you already drilled into the trunk of a maple tree. Tubes are hung from each spile and all the sap drips through the tubing system down into our sugarhouse.

LAND: It sounds like you come from a long line of maple sugarers.

AW: It’s in my blood! My ninth great grandfather, George Wightman, arrived in the U.S. in 1648 and owned 2,000 acres near Quidnessett, Rhode Island. I have heard that there is still a Wightman family homestead there. My ancestors interacted extensively with Native Americans in the area, and supposedly, they learned maple sugaring directly from them.

The first Wightman, named Valentine, bought the Wightman family homestead land from Sir Humphrey Atherton, an early settler of Massachusetts Bay Colony and real estate mogul. Valentine communicated with The Narragansett Indian Tribe that farmed, hunted and fished in the area.

LAND: Define maple sugaring.

AW: It is a catchall term for anyone who collects sap in the woods and turns it into a product. Sugaring and maple sugaring are interchangeable terms that mean maple syrup production.

LAND: What exactly is sap?

AW: Sap is inside a maple tree. Sap is the only ingredient in maple syrup.

LAND: Explain the process of collecting sap.

AW: We use a vacuum tubing system. We have 7,000 trees tapped at our Arnot Teaching and Research Forest facility near Ithaca, New York, and another 7,000 at our Uihlein Maple Research Forest in Lake Placid, New York. They are connected with approximately 50 miles of tubing that connect to high-capacity vacuum pumps. The sap in maple trees is under pressure during sap runs. However, that sap has to push against atmospheric pressure to run out of the tap hole. The best analogy is to imagine that the atmosphere is a weighted blanket that is being pulled down by gravity. The vacuum pump removes most of the atmosphere. So, then, the sap has less to push against and can flow out of the tap hole more easily—and we get more sap!

Maple syrup vacuum tubing system

LAND: What exactly is a sap run?

AW: A sap run occurs when the sugar bush has undergone a freeze-thaw cycle (the temperature has gone below freezing for a period of time, followed by a rise in temperature to above freezing), and the tree develops pressure. Under these conditions, maples trees will produce sap, or what
we call “run.”

LAND: How do you monitor all this? It sounds like a lot of walking in the forest.

AW: We have a network of remote sensors in the forest that relay real-time vacuum and temperature data to our smartphones. That helps us quickly detect things, like vacuum leaks in the system.

LAND: How do you make sap into maple syrup?

AW: Maple syrup is made by concentrating and cooking maple sap. The sap starts out at two percent sugar. It is concentrated to 66 to 68.9 percent sugar through the processes of reverse osmosis (filtering out contaminants, etc.) and boiling, leaving the concentrated syrup. Cooking also causes chemical reactions, such as the caramelization that gives maple syrup its distinct flavor.

LAND: Why develop products containing maple syrup?

AW: Maple syrup has a great flavor. A flavor everyone loves! Other sugars don’t have the magnesium and vitamin B that maple syrup has. Also, maple syrup has chemical compounds. Researchers at the University of Rhode Island found that maple syrup may have anti-inflammatory qualities.

LAND: What sparked you to make it an ingredient in beer?

AW: My mission was, and is, to find new products to make maple syrup. The maple industry is growing experientially! In 2000, New York made 200,000 gallons of maple syrup. The USDA statistics estimated 820,000 gallons in 2019. The average American only uses a few ounces a year of maple syrup. Yes, to put on pancakes! But, the average American uses large amounts of beer, wine, and alcohol. It came together for me: maple is a sugar; sugar can be used in alcohol. If maple-style beers gain mass appeal, the sales implications for maple producers could be considerable.

LAND: What did you discover in your first study?

AW: Our first trial was on beer. We had to find the right time to do fermentation in the maple syrup process. We found, if maple syrup is added in with the malt, that the fermentation is too robust, and the maple syrup flavors don’t survive. Instead, we found if the malt is fermented and we do a slower second fermentation, the maple syrup flavors survive.

Test batch of maple beer produced by the Cornell Maple Program (left); Experimental maple beer and maple wine produced by the Cornell Maple Program (middle); Steam rolling off the evaporator in the early morning hours at Cornell’s Arnot Teaching and Research Forest in central New York (right)
Test batch of maple beer produced by the Cornell Maple Program (left); Experimental maple beer and maple wine produced by the Cornell Maple Program (middle); Steam rolling off the evaporator in the early morning hours at Cornell’s Arnot Teaching and Research Forest in central New York (right)

LAND: Talk about your progress with winemaking.

AW: We are doing secondary fermentations to make a buttery, high-quality chardonnay with maple syrup. We have also made some pretty good dry maple wines that have really low sugar.

Secondary fermentation is the process of transferring the finished wine to another container for a period of aging.

LAND: Are you experimenting with distilled spirits?

AW: Yes, we’re working with sap from the end of the season that takes on some negative flavors, because the chemistry changes— and because the trees are trying to grow leaves. The flavor is a cross between cabbage and a Tootsie Roll! We’re concentrating it, then fermenting it into a wine and distilling it into a cream spirit.

LAND: How are you involving farmers?

AW: I interact with maple farmers across the Northeast and through New York State Maple Producers Association. They provide oversight and guidance to our research. We do over 100 workshops a year with maple farmers. We understand their needs. We are maple sugarers. We make all of our own maple syrup in the Cornell Maple Program.

Maple Syrup in a bottle

LAND: Describe your current educational efforts.

AW: We are developing these guidelines and sample recipes to educate industry experts on best practices for using maple syrup in brewing:

LAND: What’s next in your research?

AW: Three things: 

  • An agriculture forest project. We are exploring growing native berries in the woods during summer, when maple trees are not used.
  • Developing other value-added products: For example, we are developing maple chocolate. 
  • Developing ways to increase productivity and efficiency for maple production in the woods. 

Spring is for Sweet Sampling

Chocolate, lotion, milkshakes, barbeque. . . You name it and you’re bound to find maple in it at a maple festival. Enjoy a tour of a sugarhouse and taste lots of sweet and sticky maple syrup. Check websites for updates and coronavirus pandemic precautions, delays and cancellations.

Hebron Maple Festival, Hebron, CT

Maine Maple Sunday

Maple Open House Weekend, VT

Maple Weekend New York State

Massachusetts Maple Weekend

National Maple Syrup Festival, Medora, IN

New Hampshire Maple Weekend

Pennsylvania Maple Festival, Meyersdale, PA

Vermont Maple Festival, Saint Albans, VT

Vermontville Maple Syrup Festival, Vermontville, MI

Skowhegan Maple Festival, Skowhegan, ME


  • avatar

    Growing up in Illinois, Karen’s favorite escape was to ride her bicycle to a forest preserve, sit under a tree and write stories—from wonderings and poems about nature to creating fictional characters. Her insatiable curiosity led her to work as a magazine writer, public relations practitioner and high school English teacher. Karen has always woven her passion for the outdoors into her work, including teaching urban youth to garden, hike and ride a bike. Today, Karen teaches writing and storytelling to youth for Lighthouse Writers Workshop, Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities and Redline Contemporary Art Center. And, she’s deep in revising a young adult novel, personal essays and more magazine articles. Being outside still sparks her muse, especially taking photos and hiking along the historic railroad track behind her family cabin in Fairplay, Colorado, and meeting ranchers and historians. Karen serves on the Advisory Board of Educators for Free Spirit Publishing. She lives in Denver with her husband and a lot of books. Karen loves skiing, cycling, cooking, birdwatching and laughing and eating homemade guac with her husband and grown stepson.

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