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Make Maple Syrup

A bucket hangs on a spile and collects sap from this sugar maple. Photos by Attila Horvath.

The sweet satisfaction of making your own maple syrup may just be the cure for the bitterness of late winter. All you need is a maple tree, good timing, some simple supplies and the old-time knowhow of Native Americans and early European settlers to do it yourself.

Doug Christen, a Community Supported Agriculture farmer in Yellow Springs, OH explains that maple syrup is the sap of the maple tree boiled down to concentrate the sugars. Simple. This is how to make it.

Find the right tree. Any variety of maple tree will do for collecting sap. But Erin Shaw, the regional naturalist at Pennsylvania’s Caesar Creek State Park, points out that “The sugar maple has the highest sugar content. It has the sweetest taste.” You need to select a healthy tree at least 1 ½ feet in diameter.

Your timing is sweet! Sap flow peaks when days are sunny with temperatures getting into the 40s and nighttime temperatures are still below freezing. This is maple syrup season. Exactly when this happens will of course vary from place to place and year to year, but in the Ohio River region this generally happens in February or March.

Who you callin’ sapsucker? To access the flowing sap, you must make a small hole in the tree. It’s similar to what a bird called the yellow-bellied sapsucker (a small woodpecker – and what a cool name!) does to get a meal. But don’t pound your head against the trunk to make the hole. “We just use a cordless drill” says Doug. Using a clean bit, drill a hole on the sunniest, warmest side of the tree about 1 ½ to two inches deep, about three feet up the trunk, angled slightly so the sap drips out downward. Into this hole, insert a spile -- basically a little spout for the sap to flow through. They often have a hook built in to hang a bucket from. Gently tap in the spile with a hammer so that it fits snugly. Doug notes, “Don’t pound in the spile because you may split the wood.” Hang your bucket below the spile and cover it to keep out precipitation and debris.

Go with the flow. The sap looks like water. “It’ll be a steady drip if it’s flowing well,” says Doug. You can expect to get a gallon or two of sap a day from a tree. To make syrup, you need to collect a lot of sap; it takes about 40 units of sap to make one unit of syrup. A good sap flow can last weeks, and it may take that long to collect enough sap to get the quantity of syrup you’re after. Empty your collection buckets daily into a larger container and get to boiling it ASAP. Doug says, “If it’s really cold you can keep it for a few days, but the bacteria will start working on the sugars and the sap can go sour.”

Have a steamy affair. You need to evaporate most of the water off the sap to be left with syrup. “You can boil on the stove in your house if you’re just boiling a little bit, but make sure it’s well ventilated,” Doug advises. You can crank your vent fan and open a window, but for large amounts, you need to do the evaporating outside. “I prefer a wood fire,” says Erin. This will impart a smoky, woodsy flavor to the syrup. You can also use a gas grill. Either way, make sure you have plenty of fuel on hand to make sure you can finish the time-consuming job. Even modest amounts of syrup can take many hours to make; start by setting aside a day to boil down sap on your stovetop. Boil the sap in a container with a large surface area (to speed the process). Doug advises, “It’ll start getting darker as you get closer to the finished product. As you get closer to finished product it’ll start foaming. It can go from foam to burned very quickly so you want to ease off the heat. At the end you want to monitor closely.”

Am I done yet? You can measure density and monitor temperatures to determine when a batch is done, as the large scale commercial processors do. But the hobbyist? “I just wing it and taste it. It depends on how thick you like it,” says Erin. Doug has a similar ethos: “Close can be good enough.”

Identifying sugar maple trees
For online help check out www.massmaple.org or www.ryersonwoods.org. A good paper reference is The Tree Identification Book by George W.D. Symonds.

Does tapping hurt trees?
Generally speaking, no. Erin says, “The tree will heal itself. You take out the tap when you’re done.” This allows for the hole will heal over. The amount of sap you collect is a small fraction of the total in the tree; “It’s like donating blood.” Doug adds, “You don’t want to tap in the same area every year” so the tree can heal the area. “The same trees have been tapped for 40 years or more.” Keep in mind that the tree has to be healthy to begin with, and that urban trees are often not good choices – these trees are typically highly stressed.