Do you want to learn how to make maple syrup? Do you have some maple trees? Are they sugar or silver maples? If so, chances are you've thought about sugaring— the process of collecting maple sap and boiling it down to make maple syrup. Maple sugaring is fun and easy and can be done on a small or larger scale depending on the time you have available, and your ability to acquire supplies (for larger operations, this can get expensive).
Sugaring on a small scale is a great way to welcome spring! It's a fun and educational family activity, and even with just a few trees, you may be able to make enough syrup for gifts for friends and family.
When to Start Sugaring
The exact date when the maple sap starts to run varies depending on the region where you live, and also by year! The general rule of thumb is that the sap begins running when the daytime temperature goes above freezing, 32 F, and the nighttime temps are still below freezing.
Kinds of Trees to Tap
Sugar and black maples have the highest sap sugar contents and will produce the best syrup most efficiently (they require less sap for a given amount of syrup)f. Red or silver maples can be tapped, and make good syrup, but it may be cloudy. Red and silver maples put forth buds a bit earlier than sugar maples, so tapping season may end sooner for these species. You don't want to tap a budding tree, as the syrup will have poor flavor.
Tree diameter is important as well. Avoid tapping trees that are less than 10 to 12 inches in diameter. Conservative tapping guidelines for a healthy, growing tree with no trunk defects are 12 to 18 inches diameter = one tap; 19 to 25 inches diameter = two taps; above 25 inches diameter = three taps.
Maple sugaring can happen on a micro-scale, or on a macro-scale, with a full sugar shack, evaporator, and so on. I'll be focusing on home or hobby production. Remember that any or all of this equipment can be made, improvised, found, recycled, borrowed, bought used, or otherwise scrounged!
Tapping the Trees
Tapping is about as easy as it sounds. You can place taps anywhere on the tree trunk but think about ease of collection and the height of any (potentially melting) snow. Two to four feet off the ground is about right. Drill the hole, slanting it upward slightly so that sap can run out, then insert and gently tap the spile into the hole. Hang the bucket or bag onto the spile to collect the sap.
Only drill into the healthy wood; avoid spots that are dark, decayed or discolored. If previous tapholes exist, locate them at least six inches to the side and four inches above the height of the old tapholes. When drilling more than one tap per tree, space the taps evenly around the tree.
Collecting the Sap
It's best to collect the sap the day it runs and boil it down that same day. The sap contains enough water that it will spoil very quickly, especially if the weather is warm. Filter the sap through a cloth before boiling if possible to remove larger bits of debris, such as pieces of bark, twigs or insects.
Boiling the Sap
Depending on the sugar content of the sap, it takes about 40 to 45 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of finished syrup. The larger the surface area of your evaporating pan, the more quickly you can evaporate all that water. For the hobby maple sugaring operation, Experiment and use whatever you can find for boiling down sap. Evaporators, even small ones, are expensive pieces of equipment (though check your local trader for used ones).
Set the pan on the heat source and fill with sap, being sure to leave room at the top for the sap to roll and foam just like boiling water. Be sure to vent steam well if you're sugaring in the house. Bring the sap to a boil, and continually replace the sap as it boils down. Keep at least 1 1/2 inches of liquid in the pan at all times to avoid scorching.
As the water evaporates, the boiling point of the syrup that is left continues to increase. Finished syrup boils at 7.1 F above the boiling temperature of water. What is the boiling point of water? It's not just 212 F. The exact boiling point can vary depending on altitude and weather, so have a second thermometer in a pot of vigorously boiling water and use that as your boiling point, or note the boiling temperature as your sap first begins to boil (at that point, it's mostly water).
When you're done evaporating all your sap and ready to finish, continue to evaporate what's left while monitoring the temperature carefully. When the syrup is boiling at 7.1 F above the boiling point of water, filter and package the syrup. If you are using a hydrometer, check the density of the syrup before pouring into containers. For safe storage, be sure the syrup is at a minimum temperature of 185 F during pouring. After pouring and sealing, turn the containers upside down for a few minutes so that the container neck and lid bottom are covered with hot syrup, then turn right side up again.