Since the beginning of February, I have been conducting daily inspections of the Weather network. Carefully watching the long range forecast. Waiting for that brief magical time at the end of winter. The time where it is still below freezing at night, and above freezing during the day. When that time comes, a magical season starts… maple season.
For us Canadians, maple season is a time honoured tradition. Heading out to the sugar bush for an annual festival and eating frozen syrup on a stick is a necessity. On top of that, many restaurants begin incorporating maple as well. Maple lattes, maple cookies, maple everything! There are few things more Canadian than maple syrup. It’s in our DNA.
When we moved to our farm house, we noted that we had several very large, beautiful trees. Upon further inspection, we discovered that they were MAPLE TREES! I had always wanted to make our own maple syrup. Now that dream could be a reality. My first step (as is with everything I do) was prolific amounts of research. Both online, in group forums, and from friends that have tapped before. I had to compile all the information so that we could be ready.
First thing’s first, types of tapping trees. The sugar maple tree is the most popular choice to tap. It has the highest amount of sugar in its sap, thus it takes less time to boil down. More bang for your buck. But the reality is, any species of maple tree (and birch trees!) can be tapped for syrup. You don’t have to be an arborist to make maple syrup. As long as the tree is over ten inches in diameter and disease free, you’re good to go!
Once you have established that you have a maple tree that can be tapped, it’s time to think equipment. Things you must have are:
-Depending on the spile, you may need a special size drill bit (5/16" is most common)
-Turkey Fryer (optional)
Our first year we used pretty galvanized water buckets. Aesthetically they are nice, but they are not very functional. We lost a lot of sap because they hung too far down and they got blown all over the place. By the end of the season, they were pretty badly damaged. This year we invested in proper buckets and the difference has been huge.
Once you have your tree picked and equipment on hand, you must make sure everything is clean and disinfected. I use boiling hot water and vinegar to clean the splies, buckets, and lids. Many people will also use bleach. For Jars, I boil them for at least 10 minutes, as you would with any sort of canning. After everything is clean and sanitized, it is just a waiting game for mother nature. Once the aforementioned magic time in spring is forecasted for at least 4 days in a row (usually mid March), then it is time to tap.
The best place to tap the tree is on the South side, where it will get the most sun. Find a nice flat spot about 3 feet from the ground. You want the spot as flat as possible so that the buckets will sit properly on the tree. SoMe say that you should tap between a large branch and a large root. Before you drill, put a mark two inches up on your drill bit. That way you know when you have drilled far enough. You want to drill on a slightly upward angle. Just a few degrees to help the sap drip out better. Once you have drilled your hole, grab your spile and begin gently hammering it in. You will know when it is in far enough when it is hammered and makes a deeper “thunk” sound. Quickly grab your bucket and get it on the hook before you lose any of that liquid gold. Lids are optional, but I would highly recommend. It keeps any dirt, bugs, bird poop, and rain from getting in your sap. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
Now the fun begins and those little buckets will fill your every thought until the end of the season! Once you start seeing sap in the buckets, it’s time to think storage. If you aren’t able to boil down the sap frequently, food grade buckets are your friend. Also it is crucial to remember that sap is a perishable product. If it does not remain cold, it will go bad. You can tell if your sap is bad by the smell and you will notice that it is very cloudy. Nothing more heart breaking than spoiled sap that never got to become syrup.
To boil down the sap, there are many different methods. The big producers usually use an evaporator. These tend to be pricey if you’re just tapping a few trees. Our first year we boiled over our fire pit. This is a very cost efficient method to boil down. The only downfall is if you live in the middle of a field like we do, the wind keeps killing your fire. Much less efficient. Another option is to use a Turkey Frier. Propane is a clean and efficient fuel and you will have more control of the temperature this way. This year we are boiling on our barbecue. We have a natural gas grill with a side burner. This will be great at keeping control of the temperature and natural gas will cost us less than propane. Pick whichever works for you! No judgement here.
While boiling down your sap, the goal is to make a syrup concentrate. Pour some sap in your pot or pan and keep adding more and more sap as it boils down until you’re out. Then keep it boiling until its dark and smells like syrup. Once you have reached that point, it is best to move indoors. Grab your filter and pour your syrup in. It should strain into another pot. Then time for more boiling! Keep the syrup at a rolling boil until it is done. How do you know it is done? Well you can invest in a hydrometer to see how dense it is (I have never tried this), or you can go by temperature (which varies depending on sea level), or you can go the old fashioned route and use some tricks. One sure fire way to tell if it is ready for canning is the sap sticks to the side of the pot and begins to boil over. Now this isn’t the usual boiling over. It creates large bubbles that rise out of the pot like a sexy sugary volcano of flavour. Once this happens remove from heat (or suffer a nasty mess to clean up) and get your filter back out. Get your jars set up on a trivet and prep your funnel. This is a two person job in our house. One person holds the filter and the other pours the syrup. Fill them up! Hopefully you remembered to follow standard canning procedure and have your lids sitting in some hot water to soften the rubber, because it’s go time. Once your all filtered and filled, put on your lids and your rings and twist them until they are “finger tight.” Then wait and listen to the lids pop!
To clean your filter cone, turn it inside out. This is a pain in the ass. Also should be noted that you should wait for it to cool down first. Otherwise OUCH! Then give it a good rinse out and make sure all the sand and nastiness is out. Turn it right side out and rinse again. Next wring as much excess water out as possible. To get the last bit of moisture, place filter on a clean towel and roll it up like a burrito. Squeeze that mofo and then unroll. Hang to dry and it will live another day!
It should be noted, as you have probably guessed from reading this article, that making maple sugar is not for the faint of heart. It takes sooooo much time. The ratio of sap to syrup is averaged at 40:1. Yeah. Let that soak in. 40 gallons of sap to get ONE gallon of syrup. That shit is precious. It is a lot of work but a great way to end winter and welcome spring. Plus you get maple syrup! And maybe even a few bucks from selling to friends and family…to buy more maple supplies. Hello fancy jars!
I hope this helped guide you in your maple adventure and answer some questions about the process. Comment below on your favourite maple memory! I know you have one! Spill it!