Maple syrup: Preparing for the harvest

It’s that time of year, mid winter, when we start to run out of last year’s maple syrup and start thinking about the upcoming harvest. Now It’s not quite time to harvest the syrup yet, but with wild foods you always want to prepare ahead so you don’t miss your harvest window.

In the past we have tapped a few trees and wholesale ordered the majority of our maple syrup needs. This year my son is embarking on an adventure, inspired by a classmate, to produce all our family’s maple syrup. Maple syrup is our primary sweetener for baking, cooking, breakfast, etc., so this is no small task. As a family of 6, soon to be 7, we use a minimum of 9 gallons of maple syrup a year. When we are baking a lot, it comes closer to 16 gallons. Each gallon of syrup comes from about 40 gallons of sugar maple sap. That’s a lot of sap, and a lot of tree taps, considering an average of 1/2 gallon sap per tap per day, over an average season of 2 weeks. Needless to say, my 12 year old will not be going it alone, we are now all invested in the project. From marking the trees and gathering equipment, to setting the taps, collecting, and boiling down the sap, we will have a lot of work to do.

How to prepare? Right now we are gathering equipment, marking trees, reading books, and deciding where and how to boil down all this sap. And with a prediction for next week to have weather in the 40s during the day and below freezing at night, we might even get an early sap flow this year before the main syrup season.

EQUIPMENT

Taps

There are a few different taps to choose from. Two main types are readily available.

I think the Treesaver black plastic taps (above) are my favorite. They connect to food grade tubing that goes directly to the collection bucket.

We also have some metal tree taps. The metal taps have a hook that you use to hang your bucket and lid from.

Tubes

With the Treesaver taps you use food grade tubing to connect directly from the tap to the bucket. This makes it easy to keep rain water and debris out of your sap. The food grade tubing is available from several different suppliers. We have tried sterile surgical suction tubing which also fits the taps well.

Pails and buckets

You will need food grade buckets or pails. There are old fashioned wooden collecting pails, galvanized pails, and plastic pails with lids that are specific for maple syrup collection. The Treesaver taps and food grade tubing allow you to use any food grade plastic bucket that has a lid. We picked up some plastic frosting buckets from a few local bakeries, and a deli is giving us some 5 gallon pickle buckets. Some places give the buckets for free. Other places charge one or two dollars. New food grade plastic buckets can be purchased also. We have bought the 5 gallon buckets with lids for five dollars a piece in the past from the same place we buy our bulk foods.

Hydrometer and thermometer 

The hydrometer and testing cup are a little bit of an expense, but well worth it. The hydrometer is the tool which will tell you when your maple syrup is done. It looks like a thermometer, but measures the sugar density. Syrup is poured into a testing cup, and the hydrometer placed in the cup. You want 66-67% sugar density. If higher, the syrup will form crystals. If lower, the syrup might go sour. You also want a candy thermometer. The syrup needs to reach a certain temperature, but if gets too hot it will become maple sugar or maple candy instead. If we get the temperature wrong this time, the kids all say they won’t mind maple sugar or candy. 🙂

Pans for boiling down the syrup

You can buy the expensive evaporators, and evaporating pans designed for syrup making. For our initial small scale operation we decided to use some large heavy bottom stock pots. My son’s friend has a large cast iron pot that he uses. As long as it can hold the sap, and handle your heat source, you should be okay.

Heat source for boiling down the syrup

Wood fires or propane both work well. We will use wood, because we have a lot of wood and it will minimize our expense. Propane will obviously cost more. The important thing to note is that this boiling down of sap will put a lot of moisture in the air, and you will want to do it outside. For finishing the syrup we will use a propane or natural gas burner. Controlling the temperature at the end is important, and it is harder to control the temperature of a wood fire.

Books

Several books about making maple syrup exist to help you through the process. Following are the 2 books we have that are exclusively about making syrup. They both include some recipes we hope to try.

The Maple Syrup Book by Janet Eagleson & Rosemary Hasner

Guide to Maple Tapping second edition: A Tree to Table Handbook for the Maple Tapper by Julie Fryer

Identifying and Marking the trees –

My husband is probably better than the rest of us at identifying trees by their bark. He took a class in college in the winter on the trees of the northern forest. If we really planned ahead we could have marked our trees in the fall when there were still the tell-tale maple leaves. But, we didn’t think far enough ahead. We have a hillside that is mostly maples, so we’ll start there looking for maple trees. A good test too is once a tap is flowing the maple sap actually tastes sweet.

Below is a picture of sugar maple bark. If you are having trouble with finding the right trees a good identification guide is very helpful.

Other trees for syrup

Of course its all about exploring new tastes and experiences, so we also want to tap a few non-maples to see what the syrup tastes like. Basswood is on the list along with black walnut. All the maples and walnuts can be tapped, but our english walnut and butternut trees are too small at this time. Birch is also good for syrup, but, we haven’t found any birch we can tap.

Where to get supplies –

Above we have touched on a few sources for supplies. Occasionally,  if you start looking far enough ahead of season or at the end of a maple sugaring season, you can find used products on craigslist or ebay. Sometimes your local hardware store, or farm store may have maple tapping equipment. Also nature centers, outdoor education centers and living history museums will have educational programs demonstrating sap collection and the syrup making process. Some of our supplies came from a nature center that has such a program. Certain years they even offer opportunities to “rent a tap”. (Find out more here at Troy Nature Center Programs.) Other supplies, we acquired from online supply sources. Check out tapmytrees.com for a popular source of backyard syrup making supplies. Amazon also has several listings for sap harvest and syrup making supplies, you just have to shop around to find what’s right for you.

If you know of a good source for syrup making supplies or have a story to tell about your own syrup making experience, please share in the comment section below. This will be our first real attempt at making any quantity of syrup. We would love any suggestions. Also look for more posts on uses of sap and syrup as we experiment with our harvest.

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