Homemade Pure Maple Syrup5
My father-in-law (hereafter lovingly referred to as “Papa”) is currently in his third year of making homemade maple syrup from his own trees. Last year he made an abundance and we’ve been blessed with as much free, pure maple syrup as our little pancakes hearts can handle. I’ve been eager to try making our own syrup ever since it dawned on me that we have some maple trees of our own (four of them, in fact). I’m especially interested in making my own maple sugar. Since this is my first year and I’m getting a late start, I doubt I’ll end up with a large volume of finished product. But just like everything else, you’ve got to start somewhere! I’m hoping I’ll get enough experience this year to be able to make a decent supply (maybe a whole year’s worth?) of maple sugar next year. Next year maybe I’ll even wear this t-shirt while I work.
Why would I want to make that much maple sugar? Namely because I think it would be a fabulous, “healthier” alternative to highly-processed, non-local cane sugar. Pure maple syrup is also way better than a bottle of anything Aunt Jemima can cook up. Have you ever read the label on store-bought syrup? Here’s the label from a bottle I found lingering in the disarray of our fridge (soon to meet its destiny in the garbage can):
Boo. My maple syrup will contain only two ingredients: Maple syrup and love.
So far, maple sugarin’ (<– said with my best hick accent) has been pretty easy. Here’s the skinny on what we’ve done so far and how you can make your own pure maple syrup too!
How to Make Maple Syrup and Sugar
The basic concept of making maple syrup is easy. First, you gather sap from maple trees. Next, you boil the sap down until the water evaporates and the sugary-sweet syrup remains. To make maple sugar, you continue to boil the syrup until it crystallizes. The general rule is that you’ll need about 40 gallons of sap to get 1 gallon of syrup. That 1 gallon of syrup will net you about 8 pounds of sugar. Of course there are details and nuances to the process that you’ll need to know, but that’s the process in a nutshell.
Papa lent me a book called Backyard Sugarin’: A Complete How-To Guide (by Rink Mann) to help me get started. The book is short, to-the-point and a good practical guide. I spent about 15 minutes reading before our tree-tapping adventure yesterday and felt fully equipped. Most of the information I’m going to share with you in the rest of this post either came from Papa’s advice or this book.
Find Some Maple Trees
The first thing you need to do is find some maple trees! If you haven’t identified the trees in your yard, I’m sorry to tell you that the best way to identify them is by their leaves. So if you don’t know which of your trees are maples, you’ll have to wait until summer to identify your trees and try your hand at maple syrup making next winter. Here’s a handy chart (courtesy of The Village of Waterford, Virginia) to help you identify the different varieties of maple trees.
There seems to be conflicting information on how many gallons of sap you can collect from each tree. The general consensus seems to be that you’ll get an average of 10 gallons per tree.
Don’t have any maples on your property? Maybe a neighbor wouldn’t mind letting you tap their trees in exchange for a smidge of maple syrup when you’re done.
When to Tap Your Trees
There’s no official start to the maple syrup season. Maple sap begins to flow when temperatures are below freezing at night but above freezing during the day. Extra-sunny days are especially great for sap-flow. In southwest Michigan, this kind of weather can start as early as February but is usually well underway in March. From what Papa says, a couple of weeks ago was a great time to start. Mr. Mann says in his book that “if you tap too early and get an extended cold spell, the taps can dry out, and you may have to rebore your holes. Or, if you wait too long, you may miss the first big sap run, which is prized for its high sugar content and fine quality.”
Mr. Mann suggests that you tap one tree fairly early. When it starts to flow well, then you can set the rest of your taps.
How to Tap Your Trees
To tap a maple tree, use a drill bit to bore a hole approximately 1”-2” into the side of the tree. This isn’t an exact measurement – you just want to make sure you’re into “good wood”. We bore our holes on a warm (40’s) sunny evening and sap came out immediately, so we knew we’d found a good depth.
Placement on the tree is also important. If possible, choose to tap the south side of the tree (or whichever side gets the most sun.) The best place to drill is underneath a large branch or above a large root because that is the area where sap will be flowing. While Ryan and I were trying to decide where to tap our first maple tree, I happened to look up and see this:
Sap pouring over the side of the tree seemed like a pretty good sign that this was a nice place to drill.
The diameter of the hole should accommodate the size of your tap. We had to wiggle the drill bit around a smidge to make the hole wide enough to get the tap to fit just right. Another important point is to bore the hole on a slightly upward angle to assist the sap in flowing downward toward your tap.
In Southwest Michigan you can get maple sugaring supplies – including taps (called spiles) – from Haigh’s Maple Syrup & Supplies in Bellevue (269-763-2210). We were fortunate that Papa had some extras for us to borrow.
After the tap was set we connected a plastic tube. Using the same drill bit we created small holes on the back-side of clean milk jugs. (Wiggle the drill a little to make the hole wide enough.) The tube went into the hole, the cap stayed on the jug (to keep debris and bugs out) and the whole thing was strung up around the tree using some garden twine. The whole process takes less than 5 minutes per tree. And in the case of all but one tree, we had a steady stream of sap before we walked away.
Owen likes to drink the sap straight from the tree. Want proof? Here’s a lil’ photo-bomb evidence. See his little upside down face drinking straight from the tree?? I love this kid!
Because it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, you’re probably going to accumulate a lot of sap before you start your boiling process. That means you also need a proper place to store your liquid gold. Sap can spoil, so you’ll want to keep it cool. We’re going to store ours in the garage fridge (which is working now) in food-grade five-gallon buckets. Since maple syrup season is during cold, wintery weather, storing your sap in a shady, cool, outdoor place should also work, so long as you keep it covered to keep critters and debris out.
We finished our taps last night around 7 PM. This morning by 10:00 AM two of the four trees had already filled a gallon milk jug and one was well on its way! (The fourth tree is not the healthiest tree in the world… we considered not tapping it at all but went ahead just to see what would happen. I’m writing this post at 12:30 PM and can see from where I’m sitting that this particular jug is not even ¼ full yet.) I poured the sap (which looks just like water) directly from the milk jugs to my bucket and left the jugs hanging to gather more sap. I can’t wait to see how much more we have this (sunny) afternoon!
Now we’ve talked about the easy part of making maple syrup and sugar – collecting the sap. The tricky part of the process has to do with boiling it down. While you can certainly do this process indoors, I’ve read and heard that the large amounts of evaporated water mean your family is likely to be walking around in a veritable fog during the 8 or so hours you’re likely to spend on the task. Outdoor evaporating is recommended. We’re not quite there yet. I plan to share all of the details with you as we experience this ourselves. Meanwhile, if you can’t wait to learn about the rest of the process, feel free to check out one of the following resources.
Here’s a video about a homemade, backyard evaporator. Keep in mind there are MANY different ways to make a backyard evaporator. I’ll be sharing more about that in my next maple syrup post. (Update 03/29/13: Click here for Part 2 of our maple sugarin’ escapades.)
You can get tips on making maple sugar from pure maple syrup by clicking on the maple syrup image below.