The sun was sparkling on the icicles hanging off the covered porch this morning. The pine trees are glistening as the white snow melts and drips from the laden branches.
In other words...it's melting!
I like winter, really I do. But come February it starts to wear out its welcome. During this last lingering bit of cold, where Mother Nature teases us with warm looking, sunny days that seem inviting, until you step outside and she smacks you in the face. "Just kidding, it's still frigid!"
There are things that get me through the home stretch till spring. I like to take time to finish indoor projects like drawing, dying wool and spinning. I also look forward to the seed catalogs coming in the mail, planning the garden out on graph paper, and setting up the seed starter trays and grow lights.
But one of the best late winter activities is tapping the Sugar Maples.
We’ve been tapping for 3 years now and each year we learn something new. The first year was in our other home where Sugar Maples were far and few between. We tapped some Red Maples, which you can make syrup from, but the flavor was more honey-like and not that rich maple-y flavor. That year we attended a Sugar Maple Class put on by a local park to learn how to identify a Maple Tree (in the spring without its signature leaves), how to tap and how to boil the sap to syrup. (For more reading on this visit my post Indian Springs Maple Syrup Demonstration)
Last year we moved to our farm and were blessed to have some nice Sugar Maples on the property. Not a large sugar bush, (A "sugar bush" is a grove of Sugar Maples used for tapping) but we were able to collect 40 gallons of sap in recycled water jugs. We kept them on the porch which stays cold because it’s closed off from the house. We “should” have been able to make 1 gallon of syrup from this amount of sap, (it’s a 40 to 1 ratio) but we had an unusual warm day and it spoiled half our collecting. We were very upset!
This year we are using 5 gallon buckets, and plan on boiling each bucket after it fills. That way, it won’t be such a large intimidating amount to work with.
In our area, the temperature isn’t up to where it needs to be quite yet. But the warm spells are getting warmer and it’s almost time. Temperature fluctuation is crucial to tapping. The warm days (above freezing) and the cold nights (below freezing) are what causes the sap to run up and down the tree, thus making it available to collect. This phenomenon only happens in a few places in the world including Michigan, Wisconsin, parts of the east coast and southern Canada.
You can continue to collect sap until the weather warms consistently and then the season is over because the sap will sour quickly. You also want to stop before the buds form as the tree will send the sweetness to the new growth, thus giving the sap a bitter flavor.
Identifying the Tree
It can be difficult to tell the different trees in your yard without leaves. So if you can remember, in the fall be sure to mark the Sugar Maples. Sugar Maples have a wide, silky, substantial leaf with smooth points.
If you don’t mark your trees, there are still some things you can do to distinguish a maple from an oak, for example. (for a good laugh read my post Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dummer Tap Maple Trees) There is an acronym that can help in this identification process. MADHorse stands for Maples, Ash, Dogwood and Horse Chestnut. These are a select group of trees where the branches grow parallel to each other. Most other trees, the branches are staggered. If you suspect you have a maple there is another way to identify it by looking at its bark. The bark on a Sugar Maple has flat vertical panels and it usually is splitting open on one side.
There are many different systems that people use to tap trees. We’ve used mostly a hand drill and metal drip spiles with a bucket or a pail. Some people use a smaller spile and attach aquarium tubing to the collection bucket.
It’s best to tap the tree under a main branch, or above a large root on the south side of the tree. (You can tap in other directions, but it will flow the fastest facing south.) Try to avoid lining up a drill hole with a previous year’s hole. Maples have an amazing capacity to heal themselves and the tree does not suffer from the tiny taps each year. The tree should be at least 12 inches in diameter and some really large trees can support two taps.
We use a hand held drill with a drill bit slightly smaller than the thickness of the spile.
Drill the hole at a slight angle toward the ground.
Tap the spile in and attach the bucket. You can cover the bucket with a piece of cloth or plastic to keep bugs and debris from falling in. You can also purchase bags designed for tapping that keep everything very sanitary.
Keep an eye on your buckets. They fill up faster than you might expect. On warm days our 1 gallon pails would be full in 4 to 6 hours.
Once the sap is collected, we boil it on an outdoor fire. The “Old Fashioned” term for making maple syrup in this manner is called Kettle Syrup. The ash and smoke lend it’s own flavor to the finished product, and I think it makes it even more delicious.
The fire box is constructed of cement blocks with a metal grill laid over the top. We used two shallow pans to boil the sap. The more surface area you can create with your boiling vessel, the faster the sap will reduce. As the sap reduces, pour in fresh sap.
We boiled the sap down in this manner until 20 gallons fit in these two shallow pans. Then we brought it in the house to finish.
Finishing the Syrup
To finish the syrup, we poured it through two clean, cotton towels to remove any sediment, like bits of ash etc.. Then we poured it into a large pot and continued to heat the sap on the stove.
It took 2 additional hours to boil down and come up to temperature. 219 degrees on a candy thermometer, or seven degrees above boiling means the sugar content is at syrup level.
We gave it a taste test and checked for tracing on the back of a large spoon. Tracing is when the syrup no longer drips like water, but holds together and runs like a sheet.
Maple Syrup can easily be stored in canning jars. We simple sterilized our jars by washing them with soap and water them boiling for 10 minutes. Ladle the hot syrup into the hot jars and let them “POP” and seal. There’s no need to process them once filled.
For more on Maple Syrup Making visit our blog at Iron Oak Farm.