St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Maple Syruping for Dummies

Maple Syrup Making for Novices

Dad maple syruping 1950s
1. Find any tree in the maple family including box elders.  Identify by carrying a Canadian flag with the maple leaf symbol and look at the leaves on the ground under it, or ask a neighbor who makes syrup. (or use the Internet – search identify maple winter )

2. Put one tap in your test maple tree and wait until it begins to run before tapping the rest.  Within 4-6 weeks tap holes stop yielding due to the normal healing process.  If you tap too early, you may miss later runs.  Mid March is usual, however when the days are above and below freezing is when the sap will run – but sometimes it takes a week of that to get them started.  Don’t tap too early. Wait until your test hole shows sap is running.  

3. Sugar maples yield about 10 gallons of sap per tap in a normal year which will boil down to about 1 quart of syrup.  Four taps = 1 gallon (some year much less).

4. Get some taps  (spiles).  Tapered tubes—beg borrow, steal or purchase.  Anywhere from 25 cents for a plastic one to a few dollars for a stainless steel one.  Pick one that suits your buckets.

5. Drill a 2 inch deep hole anywhere in the maple tree – size to fit the tap –white wood
If the drill wood shavings come out other than white, do a different hole. The tap is gently tapped into the hole until it is snug and will support a pail.  Don’t pound it in or you will split the opening hole. TAP IT.

6. Hang a container from the tap – any kind will work. Sap flow is from 0 – 5 gallons/day with most days being very little and a few very much.

7. Collect the sap as the bucket fills.  Sap spoils in a few days in warm weather

8. Setup some kind of out-of-the house cooker.  Boil the sap until it gets 7 degrees F above the boiling point of water.  Use your candy thermometer.

9. Filter and bottle hot.  Filtering the thick syrup is impossible cold, so do it hot.  You can buy a syrup filter or try a clean cotton or wool sock.

10. To make filtering easier, put the unfiltered syrup into a large covered container boiling hot and let it settle for a few days, pour off the clear top and bring it to a boil and then filter and bottle it.

11. If you cook it to the right density and bottle it hot it should keep for many years.
When you tap the tree, you have to stay away from old tap holes – a few inches either side and at least 6 inches above or below.  Doesn’t matter where on the tree you put the hole otherwise—high or low, over a root or not, any direction—just needs undamaged wood.  Look for the white shavings only.

You can tap birch, nut trees and probably others, however sugar maples are the most concentrated and yield the best.  Any other maples work too, just more boiling.

The biggest error novices have is underestimating the amount of cooking required to get 40 gallons of sap into one gallon of syrup.  It will overwhelm your kitchen with all the steam, require you to buy several tanks of propane on the grill so most of us figure out a wood fire with big kettles or pans and then graduate to specially made equipment.

When you are done, you leave the hole open.  Putting in a wood plug is worse for the tree than letting it naturally heal over.  In 2 years it will be all nicely healed.

Tap about 1 bucket on a 10 inch diameter tree and 2 -3 on a large tree.  The small percent of sap removed has little effect on the tree’s health or growth.  Many trees have been tapped for 50-100 years and are still thriving.

Enjoy doing it.  Don’t worry if you have to dump some sap because you can’t keep up.  Sap tends to come in bursts – what is called “runs.”  During a normal season of 6 weeks, there may be three runs where the buckets run over for a few days, then everything quits for a week or so before the next run.  That lets you catch up.  Some years, like 2014, the sap ran late –into later April and ran almost continuously for 10 days making it difficult to keep up with the cooking and letting some sap spoil because of the warm mid April days.  

Early season syrup is light colored and very mild flavored.  End of season syrup can be very dark and bitter  (called “buddy” as it runs when the buds come out).  Stop collecting when the buds swell if you don’t want bitter syrup.  The bitter syrup actually can be used in cooking so it is not wasted.

A cover on your bucket is nice.  Keeps out the rain, snow, wood chips, bugs and the occasional mouse that could climb in and drown.  Used food grade 5 gallon buckets are widely available on for $1 each and up.

Any other questions—ask a neighbor who already syrups or buy a book on it or go on the internet where you can watch videos of everything about the process.  
Maple syrup making gets into your blood.  You start the season when winter is still on us and end it when the very first wild flowers show up close to the ground.  You get to watch spring come in from a “out in the woods” vantage point.  Not only that, you impress your friends an neighbors by updating them on what is happening and when you share that pancake breakfast with them with your own pure maple syrup.

For answers to your personal questions about syruping or life in general, email  and include a paypal payment for $10