While I was finishing my undergraduate degree I took a course that required you to take outdoor living or sustainable workshops throughout the year. They gave us a list of options that you could participate in, and upon viewing the list, Making Maple Syrup jumped right off the page at me.
Enough about me let’s talk maple syrup!
Supplies: here is a basic list of what you will need to make your syrup from start to finish.
7/16-inch drill bit
Food grade containers (5 gallons)
Food grade plastic hose
Evaporating pan (shallow)
Finishing pan (or pot)
Containers (for finished product)
Tree Identification and Selection. You will need to find a tree to tap; there are two main factors to consider here. The first being that you have found a maple tree, there are many species of maple and all can be used, but the ratio of sap to syrup will vary based on maple species. Generally the ratio of sap to syrup for a sugar maple is 40:1 (40 gallons of sap yields one gallon of syrup). Sugar maples are more commonly used because their sap has a higher concentration of sugar than other maples. The second factor is tree health. Sap flows to living tissue; therefore if you select a tree with some or many dead branches you will have a lot less sap. Trees are a lot like milking cows, some will produce lots and others will produce less.
During the summer you can select trees based on how well they leaf out, giving you a feel for the health of that tree. It is a good idea to put flagging tape around that tree so that you can find it again during the winter (since all the maples will look similar in the winter). If you decided during the winter that you want to tap trees, then you are going to be left gambling on which trees are going to be equal to a ‘good milking cow’.
Time to Start Tapping:
The sap will start running in late March through April, when day time temperatures are consistently above zero and night time temperatures are below zero. This is when you will want to start tapping the trees you have selected. Start by taking a 7/16-inch drill bit (or the same size as the spouts you plan on using), and drill a 1 1/2 – 2 inch hole into the tree (around 2-4 feet from the ground) at a slightly upward angle so that the sap will flow downward into your collection container. Clean the hole as best you can from any debris, and insert the tap into the hole – this is where the hammer might come in handy, if you cannot get the tap to slide in snuggly, give it a couple gentle taps.
General Rule: Once you have found your healthy trees you will also need to consider the diameter of the tree. A minimum of 10 inch diameter can be tapped once, 20-27 inch diameter can have two taps, 28 inch or greater diameter trees can have three taps.
The next step depends on how you want to set up your catching system. For example, I use a system of 5-gallon food grade buckets with lids, and have multiple taps and hoses draining into the bucket. (see photo). We can do this because of the type of taps we have.
However, if you have a tap with a hook to hang a bucket you can use that. Or you can also cut a ¾ inch hole next the handle of a 4-liter milk jug and hang the jug with the tap spout inserted into the cut hole. (see photo).
Whichever system you decide to use, make use you have a lid! This will help to keep critters and debris from getting into your sap. Your containers should be checked and collected every day.
Stop collecting sap when the temperature stays above the freezing mark, or when the trees start to bud. You will also know when to stop because the sap will no longer be clear, but will turn into a murky white colour.
Storage and Boiling Down: now that you have collected sap it can be stored for a few days, or you can start the process of boiling down.
After you have collected the sap, filter (using a strainer or cheese cloth) the sap as you pour it from the collection bucket into your storage container to remove anything that may have gotten into the sap. At this point you can store the sap at ‘refrigerator’ temperature or lower (for about seven days). Sap can spoil if not kept cool. It is best to boil the sap as soon as possible and to do it outdoors over a fire, outdoor grill, or outdoor fryer. If you are boiling all of your sap in the kitchen just keep in mind that you will be creating lots of steam and that it can make your kitchen humid and sticky.
Personally, we do the bulk of our boiling outdoors in large shallow pans (to increase the boiling surface area) over a propane grill. We add the stored sap to stainless steel pans, and begin the boiling process, usually taking 12-14 hours. When the sap starts to turn to a golden colour we filter the sap for a second time into a large pot and then take it into the kitchen to finish the batch. I do this for two reasons. One: it is much easier to watch the temperature of the syrup at the end of the process in a standard pot, and Two: after my first attempt of finishing off the batch, the temperature of the syrup was constant for a long time and then very quickly went higher than required and I ended up with too thick a syrup and ended up with maple candies (not the worst outcome, but definitely not the desired outcome).
As the sap is coming closer to the finished syrup the sap will continue to darken to a typical maple syrup colour. When this is happening, it is a good idea to put your candy thermometer into the sap and begin watching the temperature of the sap (as to avoid my mistake, or to end up with burnt sugar on your favorite kitchen pot). When the syrup reached 219°F (about 104°C) boiling is complete (if you finish at a lower temperature the syrup will be thin, and if to high… well we have covered that).
Now we are close to the end product. A small amount of sediment may be in the finished syrup; when the syrup has cooled take a coffee filter and add a small amount of syrup at a time, bunch the filter at the top and press the syrup through the filter into a clean container (continue process until all syrup has been filtered). This is a great system if you are starting small and have a little amount of syrup, but if you are like me and decide to tap all the trees you can see and end up with more syrup than one person would ever need, you can use cheese cloth, or if you want to be really fancy you can splurge on an orlon filter (a large, very durable cone shaped filter).
After filtering for the last time (I promise) you can bottle the syrup. Sterilize glass bottles and caps just like you would your garden preserve. If you are using a plastic container clean the bottle with hot water. Add the filtered syrup into the containers you wish to use, and store in the refrigerator. Your syrup should be used within two months, but can be frozen to keep for a long time.
That’s the whole story! After our first year of making syrup we had enough syrup to last us two years, and that was including giving bottles out as gifts to all out family, friends and neighbours. Since then we have made some improvements to make the process easier, but above all it’s a delicious addition to homemade pancakes throughout the year