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Sappy Days are Here Again

Homemade Maple Syrup

What’s the point of living in New England if you can’t make your own maple syrup?

Among products from the garden, maple syrup may be among the easiest because maple trees kind of take care of themselves. If you have any on your property, the rest is pretty simple. Collect the sap, boil it, filter it, and pour it on pancakes.

Getting Started

There are bunch of resources about how to make your own maple syrup at home. Some are on the web, published by state agriculture departments, but most are in print. Maple Syrup is an old-timey tradition – the kind that doesn’t jump to the Internet easily. For Internet resources I found this one from the Michigan Maple Syrup Association, and this one from a website called Rural Vermont.

1. Find a Maple Tree

Before you make any other decisions, you’ll need to answer one important question. Do you have access to maple trees, preferably sugar maples? Ideally you will have figured this out in the spring, summer, or fall, when the leaves are visible and identification is easy. But if you’re like most people you’ll wait until late winter and have to figure it out the hard way.

There’s nothing that I can really add to information you can find Googling “how to identify maple trees.” Doing it in winter can be tough, but I do have a trick. Narrow down the area by looking at leaves on the ground … you may have to dig through snow if you live far enough north to have maple trees. Then, on that first really clear day in early spring when you’ve had a cold below freezing night and a nice warm day, go outside.

See the dark spot -- that's sap running!

You see, maple sap runs best and strongest when a cold night is followed by a warm day (see this from the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association for an explanation). And on the first sap running day in the spring, you can often see trees begin to weep sap. Here’s a picture I took on one such day this February. This is a small tree but is shows the point … on the left branch of the “Y” you can see a dark stain. A wet spot. This is the sap running. A definite sign of a maple tree. This is one of the best ways of confirming if a tree is a maple in the dead of winter.

2. Figure Out How Much Work You Want to Do

You are going to have to collect a lot of sap for your syrup. It takes some 30 or 40 gallons of raw sap to make 1 gallon of finished syrup. If you’re retired and have lots of time to collect, filter, transfer, boil, filter again, and package syrup, by all means, tap all the trees in your yard and go nuts. Me, I have a day job, so I started small. Three trees. Over the course of a six to eight week season these trees gave me  about a pint and a half of finished syrup.

3. Get Your Gear On

It’s not hard to search the Internet for all the stuff you need. And you don’t need much. In fact, the only specialized gear you need are spiles … the taps that go into the trees. The rest of the stuff is optional. But here’s a quick list to get you started:

  • Spiles
  • Buckets to collect sap (can be re-purposed, like old milk jugs)
  • Lids to keep out rain, etc.
  • Collection vessel (you’ll get several gallons of sap from each tap in a good week)
  • Filters (can be specialized or even coffee filters if you have a lot of time to wait for sap to drip … also paper towels, cheesecloth, old rags, etc.)
  • Drill & bits
  • Boiling pot or specialized evaporator
  • Heat source (fire pit or burner)
  • Funnels
  • Thermometer (a candy thermometer works well … I use my Thermapen)
  • Container for the finished sap

My Maple Grove

I went for specialized spiles and collection buckets that I bought from the Leader Evaporator Company in Vermont. They make all kinds of kits for the home hobbyist, so I sprung for 3 plastic sap buckets for $8.50 each, 3 plastic spouts for $2.05 each, and 3 lids for $3.60 each. That’s $41.85 for the whole kit, plus shipping. Compare that to some starter kits with the same stuff that cost upwards of $80.

Here’s a picture of my buckets hanging in my little maple grove late in the season.

4. Hang ’em High

Once you find your trees and have some buckets to collect your sap, just hang ’em up and wait. When you have the right weather, the sap will run. In fact, if you have chosen your trees correctly and the season is right, you will usually see sap running as soon as the tree is tapped. If you want to be careful, you should sterilize your drill bit between drilling holes by dipping it in a mild bleach solution (just a few drops of bleach in a quart or water). Follow the directions that came with your taps for the correct size bit and depth of the hole to drill.

5. Wait. And wait. And wait. And Collect the Liquid Gold

When the weather is right, you’ll get a gallon or more of sap from a 10″ diameter tree in a single day. When the weather isn’t right you won’t get a single drop. This is nature, so it’s not predictable. But every day you should go out to your buckets and collect the sap. When our season started in February, we still had 30″ of snow on the ground, so here’s a tip for people living up north, make sure you will be able to get to the trees you select in winter.

Sap is like any natural product … it can go bad if not properly handled. So you should collect it regularly and keep it cold. If you collect a lot you might be able to store it outside while it’s cold (many people use a clean plastic garbage pail as a storage tank). I filtered it (to get the bugs out … yes, as the season progresses into March the first bugs start to appear) and stored it in either old milk jugs or old 2 liter soda bottles in my refrigerator.

Our season runs from mid February through March. On a good week I collected about 4 or 5 gallons of sap from my trees. On a slow week, only 2 or 3. For the slow weeks I waited 2 weeks in between boiling sessions.

6. Watch Your Pot Boil

My Watched Pot Actually Does Boil

I typically waited until I had 4 or 5 gallons of sap ready for boiling. I did my boiling in an old pot over my propane turkey fryer burner, and finished on the stove. It typically takes 5 to 6 hours to boil down 5 gallons of raw sap.

The reason most boiling is done outside is because you are going to drive off a lot of water … more than many home vent systems can handle. So if you try this in your kitchen, prepare for steamy windows and lots of condensation.

The secret to boiling sap is to make sure that it doesn’t cook too much and become maple sugar. Because the boiling point of a liquid (in this case mostly water) increases with the concentration of stuff dissolved in it, it is possible to determine when the sugar concentration is correct by monitoring the boiling temperature of the liquid. People with experience have calculated that the optimal sugar concentration happens when the finished syrup boils at 7 degrees above the starting point of the sap. But the sap is mostly water and it should boil at 212°F, right? Wrong, that temperature changes with the air pressure which is in turn a function of both weather and altitude. For example, at my house on most days, water boils at 211°F. And so did the sap when I first started boiling it. So my final temperature was 218°F.

Finishing Up

There’s not really much more to this step. Fill your pot, light the fire, test the temperature when it boils, then keep adding fresh sap until your supply is gone and then keep it boiling until the temperature is 7 degrees F higher than when you started. As I said, I usually finished on the stove where the temperature was easier to monitor.

By the way … if you didn’t filter your sap when you collected it, do it now. Bugs make for bad flavor!

7. Pour and Enjoy

In addition to water and sugar there are other compounds in maple sap, and as the solution boils down and concentrates, they precipitate out. People call this “niter” or maple sand. And it needs to be filtered before the syrup is packed. There are special filters that make large production easier, but you can also use cheesecloth or other filters if you have really small batches and time. I used a combination of paper towels and cheesecloth.

The result is a nice clear syrup … which may vary in color depending on the species of tree tapped and the time of year. I got a nice dark syrup seen here.

Liquid Gold

By the end of my 6 week season, I ended up with about a pint and a half of finished syrup in the refrigerator. If you have much more, you’ll need to think about a safe storage method, like hot canning it in sterile jars.

Me, I’ll eat it before it goes bad …

Good luck!

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  1. April 9th, 2011 at 12:40 | #1

    I made my own maple syrup. Really! Read: Sappy Days are Here Again http://bit.ly/i9ApuP

  1. April 23rd, 2014 at 23:21 | #1