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The following 101 on maple tapping and maple syrup making comes from HOMEGROWN gal extraordinaire Christa. Thanks, Christa, and please keep the good ideas flowing!

 

Mapling, or sugaring, is the process of collecting and boiling down the sap from maple trees in order to make syrup. It’s an ancient practice and one of the few sugar sources native to the northern hemisphere. The entire process takes a bit of time but, after tasting the finished product, I’m guessing you’ll find it worth the effort—and so much tastier than store-bought pancake syrup!

 

If you have access to a maple tree or another sugaring tree that can be tapped (more on those below), you can make syrup. I did, using two maple trees in front of my house, and this 101 will walk you through how I did it.

 

IDENTIFYING THE TREES

We'll begin with the trees themselves. Sugaring maple trees are found throughout North America. See the map at right for where they grow.

 

Sap begins to flow and is collected in late winter/early spring, with times varying according to where you live. In order for sap to flow, the temperatures need to rise above freezing during the day and drop below freezing at night; 40 degrees during the day and 20 degrees at night is a good rule of thumb. Where I am, in south central Pennsylvania, zone 6a, I tapped the trees in mid-February. The maple tapping season typically lasts about four to six weeks.

 

To get started, you’ll need to identify which trees to tap. There are several varieties of maple trees that produce sap suitable for syrup: sugar, red, silver, black, and box elder. Sugar maple sap contains the highest concentration of sugar, followed by the red maple. Besides the maple family, other tree species that produce sap suitable for syrup include sweet birch, sycamore, walnut, and hickory.

 

In order to discern what type of maple tree you’re dealing with, you’ll want to inspect the color and shape of the leaves, as well as the texture of the bark. This guide from Cornell University will help you.

 

Using the color of the fall leaves and the texture of the bark, I identified two big maple trees in front of my house as red maples. I'm glad I took the photo at right last fall to use as a reference!

 

TAPPING THE TREES

After you have identified your trees, the next step is to tap them. This involves drilling a hole into the tree and inserting a spout, or spile. During mapling season, you can find spiles at some local hardware and feed stores or online. Spiles can also be made from PVC or other materials. If you choose to make spiles out of copper tubing, definitely make sure to remove them from the trees at the end of the season to avoid poisoning the tree.

 

Only tap trees that are 12 inches in diameter or larger. The general rule of thumb is to insert one to three taps per tree, but with smaller trees, stick to just one.

 

Above left is a photo of the tools I used to tap the trees: drill, spiles, tape measure to measure the drill bit depth, masking tape to mark the depth, and a rubber mallet.

 

Most commercially made spiles require drilling a hole with a 7/16-inch drill bit. Using the masking tape, mark the drill bit about 2 ½ inches from its end; this serves as your visual indicator of when to stop drilling. Working at about waist height on the tree and angling slightly upwards (this will eventually help direct the sap flow), drill until you reach the 2 ½-inch mark on the drill bit.

 

Insert the spile and tap a few times with a mallet to secure and seal it.

 

COLLECTING THE SAP

You'll then need something to collect the sap in. Some folks hang buckets from the spile and cover it to keep out debris. Other folks attach tubing that runs from the spile to a jug sitting on the ground (as in the photo below left, from first-time syrup maker Richard). I used thick plastic gallon jugs that I secured around the tree with bungee cords (as in the photo below right).

You’ll want to collect the sap each day by emptying the buckets or jugs into a larger container. Store the collected sap in a cool area that doesn’t reach above 45 degrees; otherwise, the sap can spoil.

 

The two trees I tapped have been producing ½ to ¾ of a gallon of sap per day each. We’ve had a bit of unseasonably warm weather, including one night where the temperature stayed above freezing, and the trees produced very little the next day. Otherwise, the daily amount has been steady. In the first week, I collected 7 to 8 gallons of sap. Typically, 10 gallons of sap produces 1 quart of syrup.

 

BOILING DOWN THE SAP INTO SYRUP: GAS GRILL APPROACH

After collecting the sap, the next step is to boil down the sap into syrup. Think of this as a large-scale sauce reduction: You’ll boil off the water in the sap, leaving the sugary syrup behind. That said, this part is best done outside, as the condensation can leave a sticky film all over your kitchen. Reducing the sap can be a long process, depending on the quantity you're working with. My first 7 or 8 gallons took about 8 hours to boil down.

Sap boiling traditionally is done in a large cauldron over a wood fire, but you can also use a propane burner or a gas grill. I primarily used a gas grill (see photo at right) but set up a propane camp stove to cook a smaller overflow batch on the side (below right).

 

The more surface space you’ve got during the evaporation process, the faster it will go. Flat pans work best. I used a steam table pan, which fit nicely into the gas grill after removing the grill grate.

 

Fill the pan with sap up to about 1 inch from the top and slowly add more sap as it boils down. I added heated sap from the camp stove, which seemed to help speed up the process.

 

As the sap boils down, it slowly will turn a tan color. The syrup is ready when it thickens, turns brown, and boils at 219 degrees Fahrenheit (104 degrees Celcius). The sap will take on a slight caramelized odor just before it is ready. Keep a very close eye/nose on the syrup during the last phase of this process, as it can burn easily. In order to closely monitor the sap’s progress, I brought the pan inside and boiled it on the stove with the overhead fan on high for the last 45 minutes.

 

BOILING DOWN THE SAP INTO SYRUP: WOOD FIRE APPROACH

When I had collected enough sap to boil up a second batch of syrup, I decided to try a wood fire. Cooking down syrup is very energy intensive; in the gas grill approach described above, I went through a lot of propane in eight hours.

 

Quite a few large limbs had come down over the winter, so I collected it all and cut up the larger pieces with a chainsaw. My uncle also had cut up a decent-sized tree for me last fall, so I used that as well.

 

I constructed a small cooking setup over my campfire pit using cinder blocks. I placed the grill grate from an old camp stove on the blocks and sat the evaporation pan on top of the grate.

 

It took an hour or two to get the fire hot enough to really start cooking the sap. After that, it was just a matter of tending the fire and adding more sap to the pan as it boiled down. I went through quite a bit of wood, and this process went on well into the night.

 

It took me about nine hours to boil down ten gallons of sap. Using a wood fire requires much more attention and work than cooking on a grill or a burner, but there’s something relaxing about spending so much time outside, nursing a fire.

 

Once I was done, my vision was a little screwy from so much time near so much smoke, but I ended up with a full quart of maple syrup. The flavor is wonderful, with smoky undertones, and the color is a darker amber than my batch on the grill.

 

FILTERING AND BOTTLING THE SYRUP

Whichever boiling method you use, once the syrup has finished cooking down but is still hot, filter it through a thick cheesecloth or wool to remove any debris and crystallized sugar dirt. I used a clean piece of old flannel wrapped over a funnel and poured the hot syrup directly into the bottles, which worked fine (see photo at left).

 

Let the syrup cool before covering or screwing on jar lids. Due to the sugar content, maple syrup does not need to be canned in a water bath. The flavor of the finished syrup is exquisite: rich and maple-y but not overly sweet. Enjoy!

 

MORE FROM HOMEGROWN

• Caroline discusses how 2012's mild winter affected maple season.

• And HOMEGROWN member Bridget shares how 2012 influenced her 2013 sap collecting: “We are getting ready for maple syrup here in northeastern Ohio early this year. Last year surprised us with an early warm spell, so we never really had time to collect sap. You see, you have a very small window of time to collect maple sap. The nights have to be freezing and the days need to be warm. We should be tapping maple trees here soon, just in case mother mature brings us another early spring. Just thinking of the smell of the sugar house makes me crave pancakes with warm maple syrup!” 

• Penny posts a recipe for pumpkin custard using maple syrup.

• And Jean shares the how-to video below.

 

SPEAK UP!

Got a question about sap? Or a recipe that puts maple syrup to good use? Post it below and keep the conversation rolling. You might also be interested in 101s on making your own extracts (vanilla, almond, etc.) and an elderberry syrup flu fighter, and you can always find more things to cook, preserve, make, craft, plant, grow, and boil in the HOMEGROWN 101 library.

 

ALL PHOTOS: CHRISTA NELSON, EXCEPT PHOTO OF TUBE LEADING TO BUCKET: RICHARD MAXWELL

 

 

Tags: maple, mapling, sugaring, syrup, tapping

Views: 1585

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     So nice to see others collecting sap and making maple syrup. We have just started collecting sap this week after tapping 120 maple trees. With the cold snap we have had in North East Ohio, sap has been running slow, but with anything farm realted, you must learn to work on mother natures time.

   There are so many great uses for real maple syrup. It is wonderful on a maple glazed salmon or a chipolte maple wing sauce. I use it as a frosting on my scones and muffins as well as on our oatmeal in the morning.  The uses are as endless as you imagination.

     Thanks Christa for a great lesson on how to make your own maple syrup!

    

I tapped three trees this morning and as it warms they are starting the slow drip.  We are forecast to have perfect below freezing night temps and warm days for at least the next week so I am optimistic.  This is my first time tapping maples and am looking forward to tasting my own syrup.  Thanks for the great info.

Here in Oregon we have "Big Leaf Maple" aka Oregon Maple and although our night time temps rarely fall below freezing I am going to give this a shot next season. We have several Maples on our property and I am optimistic they will produce. Here is a pic of the oldest one ......

and a closer shot

Will have 10 trees tapped this year - more next year if things go well and I can scale up (will have to see how much work 10 trees will produce). Still several weeks away here in western Quebec.

I think 2 1/2" to drill into the tree is too much. Maybe it depends on the spiles. The ones I have only require 1 1/2" and the spile itself only sits 3/4" into the hole. Smaller holes are better for the tree. At 2 1/2" you are getting close to the heartwood of the tree and no sap runs there anyway.

I am going to try boiling down using a variation of a rocket stove - basically like the brick set up above but the bricks arranged in a rocket stove formation, with wood ash around the stove for insulation for a hotter, cleaner burning fire. I don't particularly want the mape syrup to smell like smoke. It won't likely take less time or attention but hopefully far less wood fuel.

Thanks for posting!

Beautiful tree. It might be amusing but you might be disappointed by the results (sugar content is likely to be very low). It's the less than optimal tree to tap and the weather conditions are not ideal. There's a reason why all maple syrup is produced in the east! 75% of all maple syrup in the world is produced in just one location - Quebec!

Hey, Steve: If you try the rocket stove setup, will you post a picture? Would love to see it.

I'll post success or failure. I plan to have a prototype for testing within a week.

Jennifer said:

Hey, Steve: If you try the rocket stove setup, will you post a picture? Would love to see it.

I've tried a couple of prototypes of using a rocket stove as an evaporator. Both are disappointing but I am heading in the right direction. it seems you really need to adhere to the design principles ( low mass burn chamber and chimney, equal cross section in burn chamber and chimney, well sealed j section, insulated burn chamber and chimney, chimney about 3-4x in height as the width of opening, pot shroud to focus heat on the container being heated). I think if the design meets all of this criteria, then the design is increasingly successful and efficient.

Picture of my 2 prototypes so far are posted here:

https://plus.google.com/u/0/photos/101704850335210544032/albums/585...

http://www.bugsmudbooksandsticks.com/2013/04/so-full-of-sap.html

A brief history of making syrup as part of a school class. I simply attached the URL because the blog is a bit long.  I hope you check it out an enjoy.


As a follow up,  I am in Western NC and tapped four trees.  Two of them were prolific producers of sap and the other two were minimal.  Same kind of maple, same location, same size.  I ended up with about seven gallons of sap over a two to three week period.  I built a wood fire around a three sided concrete block configuration, two blocks high.  This was to support the turkey roaster boiling pan as well as shield the fire from the wind.  I started boiling at around 9 and finished around 9.  One reason it took me so long is that the fire died down a few times and I lost my boil.  I finished it all off on the stove inside so I would not burn it, and I ended up with three pints of syrup.  I did not quite take it down to the final temp, which for my area is 214 F.  I was tired and had enough boiling for one day so I filtered it and put it in pint jars. I have to admit it is pretty good though.  My impression is that for all the work it took to collect the sap and boil it down it is not worth the effort.  That may be true but I'll probably do it again next year, as it is kind of a fun thing to do on a cold spring day.  If anyone wants to buy one of my pint jars I am selling them for $100 each.
Allen Frost said:

I tapped three trees this morning and as it warms they are starting the slow drip.  We are forecast to have perfect below freezing night temps and warm days for at least the next week so I am optimistic.  This is my first time tapping maples and am looking forward to tasting my own syrup.  Thanks for the great info.

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