Maple Syrup Season 2017 Begins!

So it begins again! The temps are forcasted to be below freezing at night and above freezing during the day for at least the next 7 to 10 days. So I started tapping trees today. I have added about 10 new trees to the rotation, going to give some of the trees we have tapped the last two years a little time off. No particular reason, just that I only have 24 taps, but there is a chance I wont make it another couple days without ordering some more. πŸ™‚ Click right here if you want to know How to Make Maple Syrup

I usually just collect empty milk jugs starting in the fall to use as sap collectors. This year my son decided to bring home his empty juice containers. They are 1 gallon also and clear, which is a bonus. So we will see how that goes. If not, I have extra milk jugs waiting to be rushed into service.

The other change for this year is I am attempting to go back to only use wood fuel in the evaporation of the sap. Last year I used propane and while it made for a more consistent outcome, it was a little to expensive. The problem with wood is you have to keep up on filling the containers while it evaporates or else it will scorch the sides of the pan. Then you refill with more syrup that scorched sap causes the maple syrup to have a burnt taste. So I will be doing smaller batches (5-10 gallons at a time) so I can watch them more closely. You just get tired after 10 hours of filling sap and stoking a fire.

Here are a couple pictures from the start of the 2017 season:

Tapped Maple Tree

Maple Syrup Season 2017

Three tapped maple trees

Maple Syrup Season 2017 – three trees

Maple Syrup Season in September!

OK, so it is not really maple syrup season but life is about rhythms and preparing. Maple syrup season is around the first part of February here in Missouri. In order to be ready when the weather warms during the day after freeing at night there is work to be done now! We are marking the trees with “danger tape” just before the leaves fall making them easier to identify and we are saving milk and juice containers to act as our sap jugs and order an extra set of Maple Spile Tap.

Danger Tape

Danger tape used to mark sugar maple trees.

Identifying Maple Trees
We moved to The Ridge on Halloween, so by the time we realized we had a healthy batch of maple trees to tap the leaves had already fallen. Identifying a maple tree (or any tree) in the winter months with no leave is definitely a step up skill, but not impossible. Most everyone knows what a maple leaf looks like, if not just search anything Canada and you will most likely see the image of the 5 pointed maple leaf. This time of year you can easily find the trees buy finding the leaves, either on the tree or on the ground around the tree.

Without the leaves on the tree you have two other things to look at, the bark and the upper level branches. On a maple tree (sugar maple specifically) the bark is grey to brown with deep ridges. Ours seem to have this thin layer of greenish grey moss that grows in the ridges making them stand out from other trees as you look through the woods.

Marked sugar maples

Sugar maple trees marked for easy identification during maple syrup season.

When looking up to the trees upper branches, a sugar maple will have the smaller branches growing directly opposite each other from a larger branch. This takes a little bit of time to learn to recognize looking up, but check out these details from the Cornell Sugar Maple Research and Extension Program

So get out there and find your trees while the leaves are still on and start saving or investing in equipment to collect and reduce the sap to syrup. See our bigger Maple Syrup How-to post for more details on making syrup.

In the meantime, comment below what projects you have going to prepare for the next season!

Late winter means maple syrup and sugar buzz!!!

Things get a little crazy this time of year as we make maple syrup. I am “forced” to constantly check the flavor of the simmering maple sap to make sure it is good and by doing so keep myself in a state of sugar induced high energy! πŸ™‚

Maple syrup is one of the our greatest discoveries on the property. At our old suburban location I tried to grow sugar maples from seeds with the intention of one day having our own place to plant them for sap collection. None ever made it and I gave up the dream. That was until we had a conservation agent come to the new property to help us determine what potential the property had for wildlife and changes we could make to have more deer and turkey. The agent did a tree survey of the property and much to our surprise there was a big stand of sugar maples just up from the house. Yippee!! Interestingly enough these trees are considered invasive in our area because they grow too fast and shade out oaks and other wildlife beneficial plants. Conservation doesn’t recommend planting them, but if you already have them they don’t expect you to remove them.

Let’s talk trees for a moment. There are several types of maple trees and all can be tapped for sap. There is the silver maple, the red maple, Norway maple, etc. The sugar maple is the desired tree because it’s sap tends to have a higher concentration of sugars, which means less boiling time. I also understand you can tap other types of trees as well like walnut and birch trees. I found this article about 22 trees that can be taped. In addition, it is recommended that you only tap trees that are at least 10 inches in diameter. Any smaller and taping it could cause irreparable damage. According to the Cornell Sugar Maple Research & Extension Program between 10 and 17 inches in diameter you would use only one tap, between 18-24 inches in diameter you can use two taps on a single tree, and greater than 25 inches in diameter can use three taps. Tree identification is a learned skill, using a lot of pictures and google searches. Specifically for sugar maples it is easiest to identify in spring and summer when the leaves are on the trees. It looks a lot like the Canadian maple leaf. In late fall and winter it is harder because you have to look at the bark and limb structure. We would recommend practicing during both times of year. Identify some by leaves and then go back and look at them again in mid winter. Yup, this is what we go for fun on the Ridge!

So the next big factor in syrup collection is the weather and the season. Maple syrup season in the Midwest is in late winter to early spring. For the sap to be “flowing” best the temperatures need to be below freezing at night and above freezing during the day. The bigger the difference in night time verses day time temperatures will mean a better flow. So what does “flowing” mean. What happens in the spring is the trees start to pump the sugars stored in the roots up to the branches and leaf buds in order to support spring growth. We take advantage of this and use it to pump the sap out into our collection system.

Now how do we get at the sugary goodness? Taps! Maple sap taps come in many shapes and sizes, but have the basic design of a short tube. Some have hooks and others don’t. They can be made from metal, wood, or plastic. If the tap doesn’t have a mechanism for holding the collection vessel, i.e. a hook, then you can attach a tube to direct the sap into your collection vessel. The old style taps are a metal tube with a hook that hold a metal bucket with a lid to collect the sap. More modern versions are plastic taps with tubes running to a collection bucket with a lid sitting on the ground. Personally we bought our “modern” taps for less than $6 on eBay here – Maple Syrup Taps and tubing. This item comes with 12 taps and we cut the tubing to equal lengths. Commercial operations even use longer stretches of tubing to run the sap all to a single collection location some times hundreds of feet away. We did a little math and it became a little too expensive to run tubing all the way to the house. πŸ™

Regarding the collection vessels. We use recycled milk jugs, they are free and will hold up to a gallon of sap. I have had a rare case on a GREAT day with a BIG tree where more than one gallon was produced, but usually there is between one third to one half of a gallon on normal days. This assumes you collect daily, if not something larger is needed like a food grade 5 gallon bucket. So size your container accordingly. We strongly recommend the container has a lid, regardless of hung on the tap or setting on the ground for two reasons: bugs and rain. One or the other will get in your sap guaranteed. In our case we drilled a 7/16 hole in the milk jug lid and the tube fits perfectly. The finished setup looks like this:

Installed maple sap collector

Maple syrup tap installed in tree and using a recycled milk jug as a collector.

Most people are shocked to find out how little sugar the sap actually contains. At about 3% or less, if you taste the raw sap from the tree it taste like plain water, no sweetness. It takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. So there is a lot of collection needed. Daily we collected the sap from the gallon jugs into a 5 gallon water jug. It had a handle for easy caring through the woods. We then use 55 gallon food grade barrel to collect the sap into until we had enough to begin boiling. So between all the containers we could have up to 55+5+12= 72 gallons at any one time. πŸ™‚

5 gallons of maple sap

5 gallon water jug recycled into use for maple sap collection.

Maple sap collection barrel and equipment

55 gallon food grade barrel used to collect the maple sap.

Now you have all the collected sap and time to begin boiling it down to remove the excess water. The goal is to go from less than 3% sugar to around 67% sugar by removing excess water through evaporation. We did a small batch using an old propane tank I needed to have emptied and the rest over a fire, which was much cheaper, i.e. free firewood. Here is the propane setup:

Simmering maple sap with propane

Using propane to simmer maple syrup, quick, easy, and efficient.

And the wood fire setup, which was just cinder blocks to contain the fire/heat and support the pans (again bought on eBay like these SPF6 Full Size 6" Steam Pan)

Maple sap evaporator setup

Simple evaporator made from cinder bricks. We use local firewood to fuel the process.

Maple sap evaporator setup - just started

This is our maple sap evaporator setup. Cinder bricks to contain the fire and support the pans.

We start with the three pans, refilling as they condense the sap. Once all the collection vessels are empty we go from three, down to two, and eventually one pan on the fire. At this point we are close to being finished and move indoors to our stove top. This allows us to use a candy thermometer to actually watch the temperature. Why? Because without a fancy Maple Syrup Hydrometerβ€Ž to determine if you are at 67% sugar, the next best way is to use a candy thermometer which we already had on hand. Using this method the extra sugar raises the boiling temperature of the water, specifically at 67% the boiling temperature increases to 219.1, plain water boils at 212 degrees. Depending on your elevation you can adjust this calculation by adding 7.1 degrees to your normal boiling temperature.

Finishing maple sap/syrup on stove top

Once all the sap is condensed to fit in my pot, it goes to the stove top with a candy thermometer to finish into syrup goodness.

Finally after all the hard work all that is left is to store the sugary goodness. Any food safe container will work, but we chose to use canning jars because we have them on hand. If you boil/sterilize the jars as you normally would for canning, then hot syrup can be placed in the jars and they will cool and seal per normal. We use cheese cloth (or old t-shirts) to filter the sap when placing in the jars. My understanding is this will allow for up to two years of storage, but please do your own research to determine storage times. Safety first! We ended up with just over a gallon of syrup, here are a few of the pint jars waiting to be consumed! YUM!

Finished Maple Syrup

Three pint jars of finished maple syrup

Fall 2015 Update

So I wanted to post a quick update on all the things around here as Fall begins.

The hive without a queen seems to have settled in, too new to all this to say who won the three way queen death match since I cant find the queen. There is brood and lots of bees in the hive over a month later. They are bringing in pollen like crazy. We get a late flow, mostly goldenrod per my local bee chapter, that is great for winter reserves. Everyone in the chapter and online it seems says goldenrod honey taste fine, but smells funny so it is hard to sell. They leave it for the bees to overwinter.

The flock remains at 12 (11 hens and 1 kazooster) and 2 guinea fowl. I am considering “getting rid” of the guinea fowl. They are loud, annoying, and beginning to bully my hens. So far my lovely wife keeps me from taking action against them. Everyone is laying well, with 12 layers I get at least 10 eggs a day. Actually it is almost too well, I have 11 dozen in the fridge right now, so time to give some away. I may cook a bunch of them up and feed back to the girls.

I have thinned herd down to winter numbers, i.e. seven. I have kept three of the new three blue eye white (BEW) bunnies to mature over the winter for spring time breeding and sales. I may do one final breeding of the larger meat rabbits next week to be ready to butcher just before winter really sets in.

So no post on this so far because all we have so far is rocks and woods. We recently had 2 yards of top soil delivered and we are clearing a hill in the front yard of trees and rocks to build a garden area. It is a little bit of an experiment. From the bottom of the hill going up, I am building a row of rocks as a mini-stone wall. I back fill that with dirt to use as a garden area. We finally planted the 5 blue berry bushes purchased in the spring into the first row. Behind the planting area I am building a mini-hugelkultur mound to act as a water reserve and a nutrient source that runs down into each garden bed. The main idea is water run off protection. When we get a heavy run the water gushes off the hillside, I am hoping this layout will soak in the water and save the garden beds from erosion. The basic idea on how we are building the hugelkultur row is we have branches and leaves from the trees we cut down to clear the area as a base. To that I am adding grass clippings and waste from cleaning the chicken coop. This is all covered with dirt and wood chips (again from cut trees) to hold it all together. We should end up with 4-5 rows up the hill ready to plant in the spring. Finally the rest of the removed trees is going to fire wood. Waste nothing!

Maple Syrup
Another area I haven’t posted about yet. Last year we collected maple sap and boiled it down to syrup, mmmmmmm. I will be posting all the details and pictures of that process soon. Mean time we are going to make a pass through the woods this weekend to tag the rest of the maple trees. Last year (out first year here) we tapped the ones we could FOR SURE identify since it was winter time and all we could go by was the bark. Our plan this weekend is to mark others now that we can see the leaves and try to make a plan to tap the ones closer to the road for ease of access.

Our property boarders the river. I was originally overly excited since I love to fish. Soon all hope was dashed as we realized our river access was basically a muddy swamp that my wife referrers to as quick-mud. It will suck you and your boots down fast. I think our winter project (last year it was the chicken coop) will be a deck/dock over the mud bank to have better fishing access. I’ll post something if this materializes.

I hope everyone has a great long Labor Day weekend!