This is my favorite time of the year as its maple syrup time! Actually in Lower Michigan, I have several friends that have been running sap on and off again for the past month due to the unseasonably mild year. Typically though, you can figure late February for the start of sap season.
Maple Syrup season starts when the nights are below zero and the days are mild, preferably sunny, and warmer. A week worth of weather in the low 40s should signal the trees to begin running and is a great signal for you to tap your trees. I’m not talking about the commercial maple syrup outfits; I’m talking about YOU making your own syrup. It really is as easy as drilling a hole into a maple tree, collecting the sap and boiling it down.
The process begins when the weather is right. Some days you will find more sap in your bucket than others. Sometimes you’ll be rewarded with overflowing buckets. Individual trees, the species of the maple tree and the location in the tree can mean drastically differing amounts of sap throughout the season. I find that the best trees are the younger ones with taps on the south or southwest side of the tree.
All species of maple trees produce sap that can be used, although sugar maple, red maple, silver maple or boxelder trees are mostly used. The thing to remember is that non-sugar maple trees typically have lower sugar content in their sap which means that sap will require more boiling to get to the syrup stage. For commercial houses, and even my own set-up, that means more cost in time and energy usage.
The tools needed for tapping the trees are pretty basic and do not need to be purchased from a Maple Syrup distributor. Actually, you probably have everything you need around the house and may only need to run to the hardware store for a spout! This is the fifth season for making my own syrup. The tools I use are a drill driver with appropriate sized drill bit, a brass plumbing connector for my tap, a hammer, a milk jug or 5 gallon bucket for collecting sap, plastic tubing, a wire to secure the container to the spout, and something to cut the wire/tubing with.
Before you tap it, it is important to consider a few things. Make sure the tree is healthy and has a minimum circumference of 10- to 17-inches. The best locations for drilling are above a large root below, or below a large branch. I find that the sap runs stronger in one of those two areas. It’s also best to note the presence of holes from past years. It’s amazing to find scars of holes that were drilled probably 100 years earlier!
Here is my five second lesson on tapping a maple tree, gathering the sap and making homemade maple syrup for you and your family to enjoy!
1) Drill a small hole approx 3 to 4 feet up the trunk above a root or below a tree limb. I use a 3/8″ bit or a 1/2″ drill bit depending on which spout I use. It is best to drill your hole 1 ½-2” deep at a slight angle to help the sap drain.
2) Insert your tap into the tree, using a hammer or mallet to gently tap it in place. If you are lucky, the sap will begin dripping immediately!
3) Attach tubing or a hose to the tap and run it to your collection container or choice. I started using milk jugs to collect the sap. Their small top means less debris gets inside and they are easy to handle. This past year, however, to eliminate my needing to empty the jugs two to four times a day, I used 5-gallon food grade buckets set on the ground and used longer tubing for collection. I then cut a small hole in the lid of the bucket and slid the tubing into the hole.
4) Watch as the sap drips out of the tree. Be sure to taste it, too. The sap is slightly sweet and makes an amazing “maple-aid,” is wonderful added to oats for slightly sweetened maple oatmeal and is wonderful cold. My children love to sip directly from the tree. It’s important to note that the season is over when the trees begin to bud, but if you watch your sap, you will notice it change in clarity and taste. The finished maple syrup will also become darker as the season progresses indicating the increase in minerals.
That’s it. You’ve gathered maple sap to make syrup. The hardest part of making maple syrup, and the reason it is so expensive, is the next part–processing. In general, it takes 40 gallons of sap boiled down to get 1 gallon of syrup. The first several years I made maple syrup, I boiled it down on the stove. It certainly adds much-needed humidity to the house, but makes you crave pancakes every time you walk in. After that I decided to buy a turkey fryer for my processing. I found this method very serviceable, and faster than boiling down on the stove inside the house.
I like to boil as I collect to avoid spoilage, but also that means that none of the minerals I have collected have begun degrading in the sap. To process, you will need to boil until most of the water is boiled out, then once water is boiled out, the liquid is cooked until it reaches a temperature of 219-degrees. You can actually see the consistency change if you watch. All of a sudden it looks different–the bubbles become thick and sticky and the syrup will stick to the back of a spoon heavily.
Next, strain the hot syrup a few times to remove any debris or crystals that may have formed during processing, and put it into a jar. If you are lucky enough to get more than what can be used in one sitting, consider canning it for use later, otherwise put it into the fridge to keep.
Making maple syrup is really easy to do, healthy for you and your family and is a wonderful to savor on pancakes or ice cream. I actually borrow trees from friends in exchange for maple syrup. Last year I even discovered how wonderful Maple Sap Wine can be– home brewing is for an entirely different discussion though!
So if you have a little time this year and have access to maple trees, head out and try the generations-old process of making REAL maple syrup. You’ll be glad you did, and I guarantee you’ll never go back to the processed stuff!