Tapping Our One Sugar Maple

How to tap one maple tree for funsies:

This is an enjoyable project for kids or someone interested in the experience of tapping a maple to collect sap and make a little bit (less than a gallon) of maple syrup.  It will be easiest if you have a maple tree in your yard or a place you can easily check a couple times a day.  Ideally, the tree would be a sugar maple.  You can also tap red or silver maples, walnuts, hickory and birch. Although these trees have less sugar concentration and it will take more work and fuel to reduce the sap to syrup.  

We have a large sugar maple in our front yard.  It's probably close to the age of the housel: 120-ish years old.  We purchased a metal spile (aka tap or spout) from the internet. You might luck out and get supplies from your local hardware or farm store. The rest of the equipment we had on hand or we could improvise.

When to Tap

When the nights are below freezing, but the days are above freezing the sap flows. This year those days started in mid-January here in Northern Indiana.  We didn't' get our tap inserted until late February because the spile was my Valentine's Day present. (It was an excellent present!) The season usually ends in mid-March.

The March full moon is known as the Maple Sugar Moon or Sugaring Moon.

Where to Tap

The best placement of your tap is on the north side of the tree where the winter sun will warm the trunk and help the sap flow.  Choose a place above a large root or under a large branch.  Then, 2-5 feet from the ground place your spile.  If you are using a tube attached to the spile consider the distance the spile is from where the collection bucket will sit.  We wanted to be able to see the spile from our window kitchen window so we situated the tap on the southeast side of the tree.

How to Tap

Use a drill with a 7/16 or 5/16 inch bit and make a hole that angles slightly up into the tree about two inches deep.  Use a rubber mallet or hammer to tap the spile securely into the tree. Don't get carried away hammering or you could break your spile and damage the tree.  Then attach the collecting container and you're ready to go.  You may or may not see sap immediately depending on the day.

Collecting Sap

The first run we had lasted about a week and we got about 20 gallons of sap from our one tap.  At first, we tried using a plastic gallon jug (the bottle white vinegar came in), but it fell off overnight with the weight of all the sap.  We considered putting a nail in the tree above the tap and tying a string between the nail and the handle of the jug.  Instead, Jeff made a catch with a cleaned-out hummus container and some of his beer siphoning hose and a bucket.  This allowed us to catch up to five gallons of sap at a time, and there were some days we needed that much of a reservoir.

In hind sight, I wish we had bought the plastic spile that comes with a couple feet of tubing, but our metal spile with hummus container rigged worked too.  And it was fun to watch the sap drip.  We know the neighbors driving by also enjoyed it as we have wheel tracks in the mud next to the tree.  Since it tends to rain/snow/wintery mix during the tapping season, covering the collection bucket is a must.  A hole in the lid of the bucket to insert the tube, is an easy way to keep your sap covered.  If you want to buy a complete kit something like this will have all you need.


Evaporating Sap

When the sap was running, I poured it into the evaporating pot twice a day.  I used our biggest pot, which we use for making stock and beer.  I kept it on the stove, and when we were home (and awake) it was on at a medium heat (just under a simmer) and evaporated the water.

Sugar maple sap is two percent sugar.  That means for every forty cups (two and a half gallons) of sap you will cook down one cup of syrup.  For the eight cups of finished syrup we made, I evaporated 20 gallons of water into our house.  There were days the windows were streaming with moisture. We kept the hood fan running, the fan on our furnace running and the ceiling fan in the kitchen whirling to help keep the moisture from condensing on the ceiling creating indoor rain.  And this is why folks who make a lot of syrup have outdoor evaporator set-ups or a sugar shack.

As we collected sap, I continued to top off the evaporating pot.  I've been told to expect a sticky residue around the stove, but I haven't noticed that yet.  I would guess that keeping the temperature below boiling so the action of bubbling doesn't throw sugar water into the air helped.  

Our first five-gallons of sap, we reduced and then forgot about it on the stove until it started to smell like caramel and had become a dark maple taffy.  We poured the bubbling stuff out onto silicone mats and let it cool in long pools of thick sugar which turned grainy a couple days later.  

After that we go smarter and 
A. Did a larger batch, reducing 15-gallons of sap to yield  six-cups of syrup, which is easier to keep track of temperature-wise and
B. Paid closer attention once the boiled down sap was near done
To make maple syrup on your stove, take out your biggest, widest, heavy-bottomed pot.  If you aren't a beer maker or canner this might be your Dutch oven, roaster or a soup pot.  You want it large to hold the volume, wide for the greatest surface area for evaporation, and heavy-bottomed to evenly distribute the heat, so hot spots don't form and scorch your syrup before it is syrup.  Then turn on all your fans, and patiently evaporate.

We were having a good run of syrup, getting more than five gallons a day from our tree and with the stove on most of the day, we could keep up evaporating.

Storing Sap

If you have more sap than you can keep up with, store it covered, somewhere cool, like the back of your unheated garage or in the shade with snow packed around it.

If any ice forms in your container, use a clean hand to break it our and remove it, because the ice has almost no sugar in it.  Alternatively, you could pour the sap through a sieve to remove the ice.  Native Americans hollowed out birch trees and poured the sap into the long troughs to increase the surface area and freeze the water out of sap, reducing the amount of heating required to make syrup.

We also enjoyed drinking the sap.  It is delightfully cold when just collected.  I tried using it to make coffee and tea as well.  Ginger sap tea was my favorite.  

Finishing the Syrup

Once we could see the color of the sap change to amber in the evaporating pot, we knew we were close to syrup.  I sterilized my funnel, a rubber scraper, glass jars and canning lids by running them through the high-heat setting on my dishwasher, (you could also dip them in boiling water).  Once I had my jarring stuff prepped, I moved the almost finished sap to a smaller deep pot (a Calphalon 8-Quart Multi Pot).

It helps to have a tall pot when the sugar starts frothing, and the higher walls can support the thermometer.  The serious sugarers use a hydrometer to measure when all the water is out of the syrup.  For the amateur, just-for-fun sugarer, an instant read thermometer or candy thermometer works fine.  You want to heat your syrup 6-7 degrees above boiling. For most of us below 1000 ft sea level, that is 218-219 degrees Fahrenheit.

Filtering the Syrup

As the season went on, our finished syrup would be cloudy at the bottom.  It tastes fine, but isn't a beautiful transparent amber that we think of maple syrup being.  To make the syrup clearer we filtered it.  I first tried a coffee filter, but it was so slow.  Using hot syrup does help it move through quicker, but eventually the filter gets gummed up and even hot syrup moves slowly and then cools in the funnel further elongating the process.

For our second attempt, I used some unbleached muslin fabric to line a larger sieve.  Any tight weave cotton or natural fiber would probably be effective.  My sister told me the old-timers in her part of Minnesota remember using wool filters.  The fabric with a larger, surface area sieve, was more efficient.  I dipped hot syrup off the stove and poured it into the filter where it drained into a large measuring cup.  Once it was all filtered.  I scraped out the empty pot (lots of froth was left around the walls) and then returned the now beautiful clear syrup to the pot to heat it for hot packing.

How to Hot-pack Your Syrup

When the syrup has reached 218 degrees, take it off the boil and pour it quickly into your jars through a funnel and cap them. You don't want the temperature of the syrup to fall below 180 degrees so that the jar will self-seal and be sterile.  This finished syrup will keep at room temperature. After you open the jar store it in the refrigerator.

Alternatively, you could pour your syrup into a clean container and freeze it or keep it in if the refrigerator to use immediately.  Also, note if you freeze syrup, leave a little head space (half to one inch) for it to expand.

Here are the six pints pint jars of syrup ready to go down to the basement pantry.  The bottle will go in our refrigerator for immediate use on pancakes.

Hooray we have made our own maple syrup from our own tree!

How do you stop tapping a tree?  When do you stop tapping maples?  

After much googling and questioning of more accomplished maple syrup makers, I have learned to look for these signs:
  • The sap slows down or stops
  • The nights are no longer below freezing or the days are above 60 degrees F
  • The buds break on the tree (flowers or leaves)
  • The sap becomes milky
If you don't stop tapping when you should the resulting syrup could taste "buddy" or "green".  Maple syrup also turns a darker color the longer the season goes.  

To untap the tree, pull the spile out without wiggling it around, and creating a larger wound.  Then leave it be.  Do not plug or fill the hole.  The tree's ability to heal itself is better than anything we humans can do.  

Next year, place the tap at least six inches away from last year's hole.