Envision a steaming stack of fluffy pancakes on your breakfast plate, warm butter and sweet maple syrup dripping off the edges. Now imagine how good it all would taste with your own homemade, old-fashioned syrup pouring from the pitcher. Can you say “yummy”? Believe it or not, even you can make your own pure maple syrup – and the reward is sweet, indeed.
“So you’re really going to drill into the tree?” That question – posed by my wife – caused me to hesitate for a few moments as I contemplated plunging a 7/16-inch drill bit into one of the silver maples that grace our backyard. Undeterred by the lack of confidence in her tone, I angled my drill bit at a slight incline and drilled a hole about two inches deep into the trunk of the tree. Pulling a metal spout, or “spile,” out of my pocket, I tapped the spile into the drilled hole, and within seconds I was rewarded with a drop of clear fluid that I hoped would eventually end up on a stack of warm pancakes.
While many people associate maple syrup production with vast forests of maple trees, it only takes a few trees to produce enough syrup for personal consumption. Anyone who is somewhat handy, possesses some basic tools and has access to a few suitable trees can make her own maple syrup.
It is interesting to note that maple syrup and maple sugar are some of the oldest agricultural commodities produced in the United States. The art of making maple syrup in the Americas is generally attributed to Native Americans, who passed on those skills to early European settlers.
Native Americans harvested maple syrup by gashing maple trees with an ax and collecting the sap in bark baskets. They then allowed the sap to partially freeze to remove some of the water as ice and concentrate the sugars. To process the sap into syrup or sugar, they boiled the sap down further over an open flame or by dropping hot rocks into the containers that held the sap. Traveling to the “sugar bush,” an area with heavy concentrations of maple trees, was an annual early spring event that was crucial to the Native American hunter/gatherer existence. Many families or clans returned to the same sugar bush every year for generations.
Even though the process of producing syrup is essentially the same as that practiced by Native Americans – gathering sap and boiling it down into syrup – we have made it more efficient over time.
Where to start
To make maple syrup, you need to have access to sap-producing trees. Although the sugar maple tree – also known as rock or hard maple – is the predominate and best producer of maple syrup, red maple, silver maple and even the common box elder tree may be used to gather sap. According to a bulletin from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension entitled “How to Tap Maple Trees and Make Maple Syrup” (www.UMExt.Maine.edu/onlinepubs/PDFpubs/7036.pdf), before tapping, a tree needs to be at least 10 inches in diameter when measured 4½ feet above the ground. The bulletin also states that trees between 10 and 20 inches in
diameter should have no more than one tap per tree. A second tap may be added to trees between 20 and 25 inches in diameter. Trees more than 25 inches in diameter can sustain three taps; however, no tree should ever have more than three taps inserted.
Tapping the tree
In the main maple syrup producing states, early spring is the time of year that signifies the start of the sap-gathering process. Because early spring arrives at different times in different latitudes, the true indicator of when to tap your trees is when temperatures first start to rise above freezing to around 40 degrees during the day, then drop back below freezing at night. In my home state of Minnesota, I tapped my backyard silver maples on March 20.
To tap a tree, drill a hole 7/16 inch in diameter at a convenient height about two inches deep. The 7/16-inch size is used because that is the most common size for commercially made spiles or spouts that are driven into the drilled hole to release the sap. I used a cordless electric drill for my tapping, but traditionalists often use a hand brace. The hole should be drilled at a slight upward angle to allow the sap to flow more easily.
Once the shavings have been cleaned out of the hole, tap in a spout with a hammer. Tap trees on days when the temperature is above freezing to minimize the risk of splitting the tree. The spout needs to be tight enough so it won’t pull out by hand, but care should be taken not to drive the spout in too hard, which also could result in the tree splitting. Spouts may be purchased at some hardware stores in areas that produce maple syrup, or they are available through suppliers on the Internet. Expect to pay anywhere from 75 cents to $1.65 per spout.
Collecting the sap
To collect the sap, a wide variety of devices are available. Most spouts have a hook designed to hold a pail. Typically a 3-gallon pail is used, but anything from clean 1-gallon plastic milk jugs to plastic bags and bag holders specifically designed for sap collection may be used. Regardless of how you choose to collect the sap, the containers must be covered to keep out debris. After tapping my trees, I used sap bags that attach to the spout with a bag holder. The bags I used cost 40 cents apiece, and the bag holder was $3.35.
Once the trees are tapped, focus turns to emptying the collected sap on a daily basis. Each tap has the ability to produce 10 to 12 gallons of sap – about one quart of syrup – per season (this will vary considerably by tree size, species and location). To give you an idea of sap flows or volumes, during the peak runs with optimum weather conditions, my silver maples produced 2 to 2 1/2 gallons of sap per 24 to 36 hours.
The sap is poured from the collection devices into a food-grade holding container until you’re ready to turn the sap into syrup. A word of caution: Sap will spoil if left in the sun or if it becomes too warm. Until you are ready to process the sap, keep it in cold storage at temperatures below 45 degrees. Here in Minnesota, I was able to leave my stored sap in 5-gallon pails outside in the shade.
Reducing sap to syrup
Making maple syrup is a pretty simple concept: Boil the maple sap down to 1/35 of its original volume. How you go about boiling the sap may vary depending on quantity. Commercial producers use large evaporators heated with wood or oil capable of evaporation rates of 35 to 40 gallons of sap per hour. If you’re like me and only produce small amounts of syrup, you still have several options.
Hobby-sized evaporators may be purchased from supply houses for several hundred dollars or more, or you could use an outdoor gas range or propane-fired turkey boiler. If you are real handy, plans on the Internet will walk you through building your own evaporator out of an old garbage can or outdoor fireplace. Remember, a lot of steam is created when you boil sap, so, unless you have an excellent venting system in your kitchen, don’t try to reduce large quantities of sap indoors.
It takes plenty of time and energy to boil sap down to a level that may be finished off indoors on your kitchen stove. When I made my syrup, I used a propane-fired turkey boiler, substituting the boiling container with a large vegetable canner. It took me about four hours to boil down 5 gallons of sap to approximately 1 pint of liquid that I then finished off inside.
The last step in the preparation of maple syrup requires close attention to detail because the sap may burn. According to the University of Maine’s bulletin on making maple syrup, “Sap becomes finished maple syrup when it reaches 66 to 67 percent sugar content at 7.1 degrees F above the temperature of boiling water.” In other words, first find the temperature of boiling water at your elevation, then bring the sap 7.1 degrees above that temperature. Find the boiling point of water by heating a pan of water on the stove and checking the temperature at a rolling boil with a candy thermometer, or, if you know the boiling point of water at your elevation, put the sap on the stove and check its temperature at a rolling boil. To make sure your syrup has reached the correct concentration of sugar (66 to 67 percent), the use of a hydrometer is helpful.
Once the syrup is finished, you may want to filter it to remove sediments. Purchase special filters made of wool, which are available through maple equipment suppliers, then pour the syrup through the filters. If you don’t want the hassle or expense of filtering, let the syrup cool for at least 12 hours to allow most of the sediments to settle to the bottom of the container, then you can pour off the clear syrup on top. If you are going to can your syrup, it should be reheated to 180 degrees before filling sterilized jars and sealing them.
Whether you decide to make a pint or several gallons, making maple syrup can be a great family project that allows you to be active outdoors and create one of the purist natural foods provided free by Mother Nature.
Tim Nephew is a freelance writer living in Northern Minnesota who manages his 80 acres of land for wildlife, saving a few acres for another of his passions, growing cold-climate-hardy grapes.
Here are some helpful websites:
University of Maine Extension
University of Minnesota Extension Service
Roth Sugar Bush
10976 Co. Hwy EE
Cadott, WI 54727
Anderson’s Maple Syrup Inc.
2391 40th St.
Cumberland, WI 54829
Guenther Sorghum Supply
4363 Muddy Pond Road
Monterey, TN 38574