by Chris Hewitt
Different species of maple trees grow around the world. But only the northeastern US and eastern Canada have the sugar maples and red maples that create the abundant sweet flow of maple sap. It’s the unique climate that produces cold nights and warm days. Once it’s warm enough—in mid-February to late-March, typically—you can join the legions of locals who are tapping their own maple trees.
Hardware stores like Marbletown Hardware in Stone Ridge, A&M Hardware in Accord, and Miller Hardware in Pleasant Valley have the supplies for backyard maple sugaring. You can go the simple route or invest in a variety of high-end equipment—from a large boiling chamber to a full-blown sugar shack. Starting with the simpler supplies allows you to get used to the joy of making your own maple syrup without feeling burdened by the initial cost. Here’s how:
Identifying a sugar maple:
When you start to search your property for sugar maples, keep a couple of things in mind. Try not to tap young trees since they need time to develop strength and stability. Also avoid maples that are an important part of your ornamental landscape; tapping maples shortens the lifespan of the tree.
A sugar maple has some unique characteristics that will help you identify it in the winter. If there are leaves exposed at the base of the tree, it helps you to start narrowing it down as maples are easy to recognize. The lower bark of the tree is almost smooth aside from the fissures that form in a mostly vertical pattern, almost like cracks in an old sidewalk, but it’s starting to buckle and crumble. As you look up the tree the cracks begin to disappear to transition into a smooth, almost pink bark. The tips of the upper branches also look pink with the preformed buds for spring. If you’re unsure, research some photos.
Tapping the maple:
Now that you know which tree to tap, you’ll need some equipment: 1) Spile: a spile is typically made of metal, but it can also be wooden (Native Americans used elderberry branches because the exterior is strong and the interior can be easily removed to create a straw). This is the piece of equipment that you will insert into the maple tree to get the flow of sap going. 2) Drill: A cordless drill can be used to make a hole in the tree that the spile will be inserted into. Measure the size of the base of the spile, then choose a drill bit that is the same size. Decide where to drill into the tree: it should be about two to three feet up from the base of the tree and in line with a nice healthy branch or root. Make a hole about one-to-two inches deep, but be sure to drill at a slight angle that faces the ground, i.e. the hole should slope down so the sap flows better. Now insert the spile into the hole; you may need to use a rubber mallet to ensure that it is secure.
Collecting maple sap:
Most of the stores that sell spiles will also sell all of the other supplies, like the bucket that you’ll need for collecting the sap. The bucket will slide right onto the spile for easy collection (a one-gallon plastic jug can also be used but you’ll need to cut a little hole in it to get the spile through). On the perfect day (cold night, warm day) you can collect a couple of gallons of sap because the sugary water that’s stored in the roots for winter start quickly flowing toward the top of the tree in preparation for spring. Depending on how you plan to boil the sap (see below), you can either start heating the sap right away or store it for a day or two in a five-gallon bucket, but keep in mind that sap is like milk—it has to be kept cool while storing and can spoil easily and quickly.
Making the maple syrup:
One easy way to reduce maple sap in order to make syrup is to place a pot full of sap on your wood stove, but only if you have one with a flat surface that can boil a pot of liquid. This is a great technique because the wood fire is burning anyway, so additional fuel is not required. But you can also boil it down on your stove. Some people choose to do all of the boiling outside, since it’s possible that a lot of indoor boiling will create sticky ceilings. This can be done with a hot plate and big pot, but boiling with wood heat may be more convenient. In this case you can take a few cinder blocks and arrange them into three walls so you can make a fire pit. Place a grill across the blocks and you’re ready to boil your pot of sap.
Keep in mind that about 40 gallons of sap will boil down into one gallon of maple syrup, so it will be boiling for a long time. Once you’ve started boiling, you can add fresh sap to the pot of boiling liquid. But you may want to boil a few different batches in case you burn one of them. When you notice that the sap have become a light brown, you can taste it to see if it’s close to syrup yet. When it’s very close, the syrup will stick to your spoon, and the boiling bubbles start to look like boiling milk instead of boiling water, i.e. the bubbles become very small. These two tips are only approximations, so it’s best to buy a candy thermometer to get an exact measurement of when it’s ready. Transfer the syrup to a smaller pot so you can get an accurate reading. When the syrup is 7 degrees F above the boiling temperature of water, it’s ready to go. You can also buy a hygrometer to measure when there is zero water left in the batch. Now that you’ve made your own maple syrup, start using it in your coffee, on ice cream, in recipes, and of course, on a fresh batch of pancakes.
For additional information, there is a wealth of knowledge online about maple syrup production. You can also watch the Country Wisdom video about tapping a maple tree at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZQQa2vTZOY.