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! 🙂
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. 🙁
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:
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. 🙂
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:
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)
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 Hydrometer 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.
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!