Just before spring arrives, the snow melts, ice disappears, and we start getting multiple days over 32 degrees. You know what that means??? At my house that means it’s Maple Syrup Time, and I’m so glad I learned how to tap maple trees!
After living on my current property about 18 years, I realized I had untapped resources right out in my own yard. Really. My maple trees. I could have kicked myself, thinking, “Why didn’t I ever take advantage of this”? So, last year, my friend, Bill, showed me how to do this.
One of the first things you should know is which trees are maples, because in the winter, they all look alike. I happen to have one Red Maple, and the rest are Silver Maples. The Sugar Maple is the most desired because of its higher sugar content. Its’ sap ranges from about 3-4% sugar. The Red Maple is about 2-3%, and my Silver Maples are only a measly 1-2%.
If you are lucky enough to have a Sugar Maple, it takes roughly 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. So, I need a whole lot more sap from my Red Maple and Silver Maples to do the job. My first year (last year) I made 19 pints, and 2 quarts. I like the pint size jars, so I could give those as gifts. I used my Mason jars, so I didn’t have to order fancy bottles online.
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Get your supplies together
Being the good friend he is, Bill supplied me with everything I needed, except the trees!
Several 6 gallon plastic buckets with lids
3/8″ plastic tubing in 2-3 foot lengths
Several “spiles” or taps
Cheesecloth or a fine plastic mesh “sleeve” to filter sap before boiling
Wire for attaching buckets to the trees
3/8″ drill bit-for drilling a hole in the lid to thread the tubing in
7/16 or 1/2″ drill bit for drilling the tree
Blue tape to mark your drill bit. Wrap the tape at the 2 1/2″ mark on the drill bit, and don’t drill past that mark.
Rechargeable drill. I only had an electric drill, and as I found out later, it would have been a much better idea to get a drill with rechargeable batteries. I had to connect several extension cords across my lawn to get my drill to the trees.
I had to measure the diameter of the trees because they need to be a minimum of 12″, but I only drilled trees 14″ in diameter to be on the safe side. For every increase of 2″ in diameter, you can add another tap. The maximum is 4 taps per tree because you don’t want to stress the tree too much. The tree needs some of that sap to produce buds and leaves.
Tap the SOUTH side of the tree. That is where the sap is going to start to flow first because that side of the tree warms up first. Do not reuse the same tap next year. Move the next one over 4-6 inches up, down, or sideways. A good spot to tap is just above a large root or just below a large branch. In my area, tapping can begin in latter February to mid March and could go on for a month! Daytime temperatures need to be above freezing for about 5 days, and night time temperatures need to be below freezing for the same time period.
I began this operation in the garage. I snapped the lids on the buckets, and using the 3/8″ bit , drilled a hole in the lid. I threaded the tubing a few inches into the bucket. Then I added the spile to the other end of the tubing. I brought out the buckets for one tree at a time. My husband helped me wire the handles of the buckets around the trees. I just put the buckets directly on the ground, but sometimes it was uneven, so we put stones or shims underneath to level it off. Once everything was “staged”, it was time to drill.
Drilling and inserting the spiles
Bill drilled the first tap, the rest was up to me. (As a nurse, the saying goes: See one, do one, teach one.)
He angled the drill slightly upward, so that the sap would flow downwards. The bark was drilled away first, followed by lighter colored wood shavings. He stopped drilling when the tape mark on the bit reached the tree. We cleaned out the shavings and immediately, the sap began to drip.
Then, he gently tapped in the spile, just enough to be snug, but not too tight because you can split the wood. I could see the sap going down the tubing, and hear each drip hitting the empty bottom of the bucket. Then, it was my turn. Bill had his own trees to tap. I ended up tapping 6 or 7 trees, but each had multiple taps in them. I actually had more maples available, but not enough supplies to do any more, so I doubled my capacity this year.
Collecting and cooking the sap
Once the trees were all tapped, every other day, I emptied the buckets and placed empty ones in their place. I couldn’t let them fill all the way to the top, because the sap would slosh out of the hole in the bucket. These buckets can be very heavy when full, especially when you are walking across snow and any icy driveway. If my husband hadn’t helped lug these buckets up from the yard, I don’t think I could have done it. I would have needed smaller buckets that didn’t hold as much sap. That would have meant daily trips in and out of the cold.
Once the sap was indoors, we poured it from the bucket into another bucket lined with the plastic mesh. It caught any little bits of bark or debris that I didn’t want in my cooking pots. Then the sap went into the large stainless pots on the stove.
Every day for 3 weeks I boiled sap in my kitchen in my giant cooking pots, which, thankfully, I had found at a garage sale. The pots are 15 inches in diameter and 14 inches tall. Most people do this cooking process outdoors, but I wasn’t set up for that. However, I have a 6-burner cooktop with a heavy duty hood to vent all that humidity.
It took an hour for the sap to boil down one inch in the pot. When it was boiled down part way, I added more sap. Since I was adding sap as it boiled down, I can’t really say how much sap it took to make a pint or quart. I just did this day in and day out for about 3 weeks, about 12-13 hours a day. If I had to go to work, the sap had to go back in the garage and be kept cold, otherwise it loses its sugar content.
Once it starts reducing , you can see the sap change from clear, to pale beige, honey colored, amber, & then deep amber. I eventually went to smaller cooking pots as it reduced, and at that point I could use a candy thermometer. The condensed syrup should reach 219 degrees before final storing in jars or other containers.
Resources mentioned in this article
- Backyard Sugarin: A complete how-to guide by Rink Mann
- Making Maple Syrup by Noel Perrin
- “Maple Syrup 101”
- Maple syrup spile taps
- “When is the best time for sugarmakers to tap their maple treess?”
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