Maple syrup is made from the sap of the Sugar Maple. Tapping trees is a very old tradition dating back to cave times. As one of the few natural sweeteners available in the north maple sugar was valued. With the appearance of plastic tubing and taps Maple syrup has become big business in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. The forest is littered with tubes strung from tree to tree making it look like a tree intensive care unit for a few weeks. This system has taken a lot of the drudgery out of making volumes of Maple syrup, delivering the sap right to the Sugar House.
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Finding the Tree
The first step in tapping trees is to identify the Sugar Maple. This may seem an easy task during the summer but come mid winter without leaves it is easy to confuse with the other varieties, Norway Maple and Red Maple. Syrup may be made out the Red Maple but it takes more sap and the product is inferior. The best way to make sure is to mark trees in the summer months. Sugar Maple trees have leaves that are more open with less veining and no saw tooth edges. Sugar Maples will turn orange in the fall, while the red maples will produce a red color.
Most hardware stores sell spouts around tapping time. They will be about $1.00 to $1.50 each, it is easier if you get spouts with hooks on them. For 2 gallons of syrup you will need 8 spouts. The spouts are all designed to fit a 7/16 hole, so a 7/16th bit for a hand drill would be a good investment if you are going to continue to tap.
You may opt to use the taps that are connected to tubing, many hardware stores also sell these or a maple syrup supply catalog will have all you need. Get your taps, some T connecters, and about 10 feet of tubing for each tree.
Containers may be anything from milk jugs to real sap buckets. Make sure what ever type of container you use it is food safe. If you use milk jugs make 2 holes in the handle of the jug (strongest part), one for the spout and a smaller one for the hook. It is better to have a pail or jug with a cover on it to keep out stray objects like bark and twigs.
If you are using tubing you may want to use 5 gallon buckets to collect sap from several trees. We tap 2 to 3 taps per tree and funnel several trees in each bucket. If you are using 8 taps, pick out a pair of large trees close together, and place 2 taps in each. You can connect the two taps into one line that goes into the bucket. Each bucket will have 2 lines running in from 4 taps.
What shall I use to boil down the Sap
Before the big day arrives you will want to think about how you are going to boil the sap down. The house is not the best place because of the humidity. It takes 35 to 40 gallons of Sap to make one gallon of Maple Syrup depending on how thick you like it. This is a lot of evaporated water. An outside fireplace with wood would be the cheapest alternative. Other ways may be propane burner or campstove burner. Remember it will be on the heat a long time boiling the sap. A container to boil the sap in should be large and flat holding at least 2-3 gallons. The more surface area the better evaporation you will achieve. If you weld stainless steel or know someone that does, an old SS sink is an ideal container. If you have the resources it would be better to add hot sap to your boiling pan rather then cold to keep it boiling at maximum efficiency. Do not attempt to boil too much at a time, evaporation is more efficient with a depth of about 2"-3".
The Right Day
Sap runs best in the spring, when day time temperatures are above freezing and night time temperatures are below freezing, here in Northern Maine that would be end of March to all of April. You will probably still have lots of snow on the ground. If you rush the season and place your taps on a sunny nice day too early they may dry up before you get enough sap, taps are usually good for 4-6 weeks.
The best sap running days are sunny days with a minimum of wind. If such a day dawns about a month before the snow is gone in your area then gather together your spouts, jugs, hammer, and drill and get out before 9am. Trees located in a sunny place will run better, so pick the sunny side of a tree that is at least 10" in diameter and drill a 7/16th hole, 2 inches deep, either horizontally or slightly upwards, about 2 feet from the ground. Then tap the spout in, making sure the hook is on and in the right direction first. The tap should be in far enough to support the weight of a gallon container but not enough to crack the bark. Hang your containers by the hook so the spout is dripping into the container.
If you decided to use tubing you must connect tubing to taps, this is best done inside with a heating gun to assist the coupling. Cut 2 pieces of tubing about 12" to 15" and attach one end to the taps, join the taps using a tee. Cut a piece of tubing long enough to reach the collection bucket, and join to the remaining spout on the tee. Check the leanth of tubing you will need to conect more then one tree to a bucket if your trees are close enough together. Sometimes we connect several trees to the same collection bucket.
If the day is good you may have to empty your containers more then once in the day. Take a five gallon bucket with a lid and go check your taps, you should be able to determine how long it will take to fill a jug within about 4 hours. It is best to empty them all before nightfall. Frozen sap is hard to get out of a milk jug and you may risk splitting it loosing all your sap. If you have 8 taps it should only take you about 2-3 good days to get enough to boil down.
With tubing you may not have to empty your buckets as often but it is a good idea to empty them before nightfall to prevent freezing and making it more difficult to empty.
Making the Syrup
When you have gathered at least 20 gallons or so plan on boiling the next day. Do not keep sap for more then about 5 days and keep it cold, early in the season you can sink your pails into the snow for natural refrigeration. It will be easier to strain the sap before you start boiling when it is thinner, just run it thru some paper towel to take out any inpurites before you begin boiling. Start early and heat the sap to a rolling boil, you can trickle warm sap into your pan slowly while it is boiling. Don't add too much, the evaporation will take longer if the sap is too deep. When the sap is boiled down to about 2 gallons, (and you are tired) you can take it into the kitchen to watch it closely. It will start to develop color and may boil over quickly. A tiny bit of cream or butter will stop it from boiling over by reducing the surface tension. If you have a candy Thermometer it is the easiest way to monitor the syrup. Check your thermometer by putting it in boiling water, it should be 212 degrees, but may vary with elevation. Syrup will be done at 219 degrees or 7 degrees above boiling. If over heated you may end up with sugar so watch it close at this stage. If you don't have a thermometer then you can use the standard jelly test, dip a spoon in the syrup and hold it sideways, it should sheet off the spoon rather then run off.
You can filter your syrup thru a coffee filter or paper towel, if it is hot it will go thru much faster. Change the filter a couple of times as it will get clogged. This step can be skipped but you will have sediment in the bottom of the jar when it settles. Commercially they force the syrup thru the filters. It is much harder to filter syrup at this stage, which is why the pre filter step, getting out some of the impurities before boiling is important. Keep the syrup hot and have patience.
The easiest way to store and keep your maple syrup is in pint canning jars. Clean your jars and scald them in boiling water. Put lids in boiling water until ready to use. Heat the filtered syrup to boiling watching carefully. Pour in scalded jars, wipe rims with a damp clean paper towel and cap with sterile lids and screw bands. Leave out overnight and check for a good seal. Your 20 gallons of sap should give you 4 pints of syrup.
Done for the Season
When the sap begins to run very slowly or it gets a yellowish tint it is time to quit. The trees will be budding out soon and the season is over. You may decide to quit early if you have enough syrup to last the year, or if you don't care for the darker syrup that comes later in the season. Either way, pull the taps out clean up everything and put it away for the next year. If you are using tubing it should be flushed out. The holes in the trees will seal off and grow over within a couple of years.
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