Whether doing 1 tree or a full-on sugar bush operation, tapping for maple sap is a really fun activity for the tail end of winter. It’s a big recommendation, gets you moving outside again. It also really doesn’t cost anything, so with some maple trees to use and some motivation the adventure awaits you.
Identifying maple trees
We gotta find or identify a maple tree first. It can be on your property or perhaps you ask for permission from a neighbor. The easiest way to identify a maple is by looking for the easily recognizable maple leaf, but you know that. For the beginner marking maple trees while they have leaves could be your best help. Alas, tapping is a winter activity so we won’t think of it until the leaves have long fallen. Occasionally some dried leaves might be caught up in the branches but start by look at the bark. The bark varies from one variety to the next but look out for long strips that go up and down the trunk with narrow grooves between them. Some are smoother than others, and vary from grey to brown. Step 1.
If you’re able to peek at the branches and catch the dormant buds at their ends look for a center bud at the very end with two smaller ones on either side as it’s shoulders. This is a convincing characteristic.
If you somehow catch sight of them, the seed pods of most maple are those helicopter wings we played with as kids that come in pairs and spin in the wind.
There are a lot of different types of maple, and while perhaps Sugar Maple is the popular favorite, you’ll still get a deliciously sweet syrup from whatever you try. Don’t think you only need sugar to get your sugar. Red, Box Elder, etc are all very good and worthwhile.
Sap Running & Proper Conditions
The roots drink up an impressive amount of water everyday in the warmer months that flows up and through the tree. This helps generate growth. When leaves are on the trees the water is pulled all the way up the tree, into the leaves, and respired out of the little stomata on the leaves, and into the air in a process that assists with photosynthesis.
When cold weather moves in and those “breathing” leaves fall, the tree goes into a shut down mode where the stream of water that previously ran through its body slows. Water running in the tree at this point can put the tree at risk of damage due to the water expanding when it freezes and bursting the sapwood vessels and fibers. In addition to the tree’s safety measure of winter dehydration, it also will produce more sugar which in turn dilutes the water and lowers the freezing temperatures.
Mid-to-late winter, depending on where you live, before the tree’s bud-break is the time to be ready for the maple season. After a couple times when the temperature gets above freezing during the day, the sugar-rich sap begins to flow upward to aid the development of the coming arrival of its buds and shoots. Keeping an eye on the weather we are looking for a the moment the weather begins to have above freezing temperatures during the day and below freezing temperatures at night. This is our “sweet” spot when the temperature fluctuations create optimal pressure for sap to seep out of any bruises on the still leafless tree.
It’s impossible to predict the season as some years the conditions can persist for weeks while other years may only last a few days. Keep a feeler to the sky.
This is a no-frills way of tapping. Like with anything else you can spend as much money as makes you feel good on anything. After doing this for quite a while I don’t know why it would be worth spending money on equipment unless you were doing it commercially. I have never spent any money on maple sugaring equipment.
Spiles – There are all kinds of spiles for sale on the market however I’ve never used any of them. All you need is to know where a sumac or elder is and it takes all of 15 minutes to make a dozen yourself. I’ve detailed instructions on how to make spiles here. Otherwise if you’re into buying things get the metal ones over plastic. While I haven’t used them, I still can’t imagine the plastic ones lasting very long since we are pounding them in and leaving them out in the weather year after year.
Collection Buckets – These are the buckets you’ll be collecting sap off the tree in. The size can vary but will be based on how fast the sap is running and how often you empty the bucket. Go to a pizza shop and ask for their empty commercial sized tomato sauce cans. They are about a nice size, durable, and food safe. However if you want to go big, maybe get a 5 gallon bucket. It is possible to get quite a bit in a day from a single tree. In that case you may need to run to Lowes or Home Depot where they sell those food grade buckets for around $5. Those 5 gallon buckets I prefer to let collect on the ground due to its weight. For smaller containers though you can pierce a hole on opposite sides and run a string through it to saddle over your spile.
Sap storage – You’ll need a larger container to empty the buckets from each tree into. This is the holding container for until you’re ready to boil. A 55 gallon drum is nice. Grey Brute garbage containers as food safe. Those large Gatorade coolers work for the smaller scale operation too. It’s not far-fetched to expect to be overwhelmed with sap as the year goes on. This container is a good one to be generously on-top of.
Other equipment – a drill, hand or electric, with various sized bits for drilling into trees. Maybe a mallet for driving in spiles. But the rock laying next to the tree works just as well.
How to tap
Select your trees and pick what number you like to do. Five trees is a great starting place. I don’t do more than 12 and get enough sap/ syrup for my needs. Don’t tap anything under 8″ in diameter. If you have some hunkers, you can measure the diameter and divide by 8 to figure out how many taps can be used on that tree. Keep multiples spaced out.
Determine whether you’re hanging your collection bucket from the tap or placing it on the ground. You’ll want to determine a spot that is accessible for your container. Consider the tap will stick out maybe 2-3 inches and assess the angle of the trunk and the ground below it. Having the tap on the sun-facing side could help keep your tap from freezing over on occasion. If the tap is too far away from the bucket a windy day can sweep your drops away.
Drill into the tree according to the size recommended on your purchased taps or if using sumac use a bit approximately the size of the small end of your spile’s tapper. Drill in around 1-2″. It doesn’t have to be deep, just enough to access the sapwood and give room for the tap to hold. Most recommend drilling at a slight angle, I’ve always done mine straight. If it’s the right tree, and the season is right, you should see liquid accumulating in the hole within seconds.
Now lightly pound in your spile until its snug. You want the spile to be firm enough around the hole so the sap goes through the center channel and not seep out the sides, which is why the spile is tapered. If you pound too hard with homemade spiles the end may cave in and restrict sap flow.
Hang or arrange your collection bucket and check back within a few minutes to see if the tap started dripping. If it hasn’t after 15 minutes or so, take your spile out and make adjustments. You may need to drill deeper, or clear a blockage in your spile. Carrying a pocket knife is helpful with modifying homemade spiles on the go.
Check the sap at least once a day if not twice a day. There are a lot of factors at play but you’ll get a feel for the timing of your trees soon enough. You want to try to avoid letting the buckets overflow. When you make your rounds you’re emptying the buckets into your larger collection vessel. It’s refreshing work lugging buckets back and forth, especially if there hadn’t been much outdoor work to do all winter. Your collection vessel can live outside at your tapping location, ideally in the shade. It will be naturally refrigerated outdoors until you are able to boil.
It’s possible ants will discover your buckets. This is okay, it’s nature. Strain them out as you empty your buckets. I once placed a bucket with a little sap on the ground in the middle of some anty trees and called out to the ants to try this bucket, it tastes better. Whether that worked or not is between me and the ants…
Some higher tech set up will have lids on the collection buckets and tubes running straight from the tree to the bucket. It definitely keeps out the bugs and any rain or snow. I’ve never used either of those as I’d rather have a few sticks and ants to strain out then have my sap run around through all that plastic or have my operation reliant on a store. It’s up to your preference.
Boiling and storing syrup
It’s best not to wait too long to boil. A week is fine, two weeks is a stretch. The sap contains a lot of pectin and will gelatinize, making for an awkward consistency and boil.
The easiest way to boil is just over a burner. Syrup is typically a 40:1 ratio. If you have 40 gallons of sap you’re boiling and you do it indoors that means that you’ll be evaporating a lot of water into your house. That’s going to be rough on the house. An outdoor burner like a turkey fryer is helpful. Or maybe it’s a nice day and your kitchen is near the backdoor which you leave open so waft out the humidity.
A third option is the original and that’s boiling over a fire. This takes a lot of dedication as it can take up a whole day to boil down a mere gallon. Meanwhile you’re tending the fire and a fire going that long is a heck of a lot of fuel. The benefit is the nice smokey flavor and the experience. Find a container with the most surface area and make the fire as wide as its base. I’ve known someone who welded shut a bathtub and boiled in that. Just be sure to finish the sap inside over your stove to keep from burning all that work away.
The boiling is pretty straight forward for the bulk of it however once it starts getting close you’ll need to keep a closer eye on it. No use going through all that trouble just to burn your syrup! Boiling down to your preferred consistency and jar it up. To keep your maple syrup from molding you need a sugar density of over 66 Brix. You could also can it hot and it’ll last a while until it gets opened.
Ways to use sap
If I’m being completely honest I’d say that making maple syrup is not worth the effort. I’m not saying it’s not worth it, just that the effort doesn’t align with the final yield for the home-scale operation. That doesn’t mean it’s not a heck of a lot of fun and I wouldn’t miss a season. However perhaps boiling the sap isn’t always the best option. I usually do one boil a year and use the rest of the season’s sap for other things. Sap is the more efficient product afterall. Here are a few thoughts on using sap:
- Freeze it for a summer treat.
- Use it for your morning coffee.
- Cook vegetables by boiling in sap.
- Maple Mead. Don’t boil it down fully, just most of the way or so and proceed to ferment it into alcohol.