Friday, March 6, 2015

Tapping Our Maple Trees

fresh maple syrup

Several years ago Sunshine and I read the Little House books, and the first one, Little House in the Big Woods, talks about maple sugaring. At the time, it reminded me of when I was in first grade and we lived in New York state for a year. That winter we tapped some of the trees on the property we were renting and boiled the sap into maple syrup. I don't remember much of the tapping itself, but I do remember my dad boiling down the sap on top of the wood-burning stove in the scary cellar of the old Victorian we were living in.

Last spring I realized that we have maple trees and we should try tapping them. I wasn't sure how many we had, but I knew we had some. When we were visiting my parents for Sunshine's baptism I mentioned it to my dad and he dug out their old spiles and collecting bags so we could borrow them. Yes, my dad has hung onto them for 30 years. Have I mentioned that he likes to hang on to things "just in case"? Though in this case, I do appreciate his pack rat tendencies :)
the obsolete 12" floppy disk (with a drive to go with it) "just in case"

At the end of October Sunshine and I tramped around our property, looking for maple trees. You could do this in the winter by looking at the bark, but we did it when the leaves were still on the trees since leaves are easier to identify. We found lots of baby trees, but only four that were of a decent size. I have a terrible memory, so I sprayed each with a small circle of orange spray paint and wrote a description of where to find each.

Our winters are usually on the mild side, but this winter was supposed to be hard, so I wanted to be prepared if the weather cooperated and got the sap running. It's been cold, but I don't think it's been colder than usual, and we've gotten less snow than past winters. Until the middle of February, when all that changed.

In the middle of February, I realized I needed to figure out when to tap the trees. From what I could find, it seems like we could have started in January since we live in a milder climate. Oops. Next year we'll start in January. But waiting worked in our favor this year. Just after I pulled the bags and spiles out of storage in the basement we got hit with a cold snap and lots of snow, so we ended up waiting two weeks before heading out to tap our trees.

Actually, I think waiting until after the cold snap was a good idea. We had about a week of temps in the low teens at night and in the twenties during the day, and then day time temperatures warmed up. Perfect tapping weather.

Tapping time is when the temperature gets above freezing during the day, but stays below freezing at night. You have to stop collecting sap when the trees bud out, so if spring comes early, it cuts your tapping season short, which is why starting earlier is usually a good idea in milder climates like ours.

Monday the temperatures were forecast to reach the low 50's, so I decided to move forward with our project. Below are our bags, spiles, mallet, drill, and extra bit since I wasn't sure what size I'd need. I only cleaned four bags and spiles, but ended up going back inside to clean the other two bags and spiles. We only have four trees, but two of them are forked, so I decided to tap both forks of those trees.

After drilling a shallow hole, the sap immediately started flowing. I hadn't expected such an immediate reaction, so this was quite cool.

I used the mallet to tap the spile in, then waited for a minute for the sap to run clear (the wood bits from drilling needed to be flushed out).

First bag hung and ready to collect sap.

These bags and spiles have been in storage for 30 years, but they're still in great condition. It's nice to be able to experiment without having to spend a lot (or any) money. Below you can see the sap is already dripping into the bag.

The rigid plastic portion of the bag rests behind the hook on the top of the spile. The flap covers the top to keep debris out and also acts as a funnel when emptying the bag into a larger bucket. The way the bag attaches to the spile makes it hard to get it off, especially when it's got sap in it. I don't take the bag off the hook, I just rotate it sideways to empty it.

This tree has two good-sized forks, so I tapped both of them. This tree has been our best producer so far, after two days of collecting.

When we tapped the trees on Monday, there was still snow on the ground. When we collected sap Thursday evening, most of it had melted.

When we went back to finish tapping the trees after cleaning the last two bags and spiles, we found a good amount of sap already filling our bags. So cool! Sunshine thinks the whole thing is quite interesting, so I think we're going to do a small unit study on trees and sap.

1st day- temps in low 50's.  We collected 17.5 cups of sap (plus some lost to spillage).
                 16 cups = 1 gallon, so just over 1 gallon of sap
2nd day- temps below freezing, so we didn't bother collecting sap.
3rd day- temps back up to low 50's. We collected 28.25 cups of sap.
4th day- temps back below freezing with ice followed by 4-5 inches of snow, so we took the time to boil down the collected sap.
there's ice under all that snow- glad we don't have to go anywhere for a few days

I filtered the sap as I put it in the pots since I didn't filter before storing in the frig. I used a coffee filter from a package I bought years ago for a project. The coffee filter works, but it's slow. If we do this again I'll get a sap-specific filter. 17.5 cups + 28.25 cups = 45.75 cups = 2.86 gallons
glad I filtered those bark bits out

Almost 3 gallons of sap filled my two stock pots, so it's a good thing I didn't wait to collect more sap before boiling it down. Sap is mostly water, so 3 gallons of sap doesn't yield very much maple syrup.

After two and a half hours the sap had boiled down enough for me to combine the sap into the larger pot. I didn't take the pots to a rolling boil, which probably would have made the process go faster. I kept the pots just below a rolling boil since I wasn't keeping a super close eye on them. I ended up filtering the syrup several more times with coffee filters (I poured the sap from one pot to the other) to eliminate random floaties and scum that floated to the top. The hot sap went through the filters much quicker than the cold sap.
becoming more concentrated and darker in color

It took about 5 hours to boil down almost 3 gallons of sap to about 1.25 cups of syrup.  I used the directions here to know when the syrup was done.
now I need to make some gluten free pancakes to pour our syrup on

I found this post in January about tapping other trees. It was too late to mark our black walnut trees, but it's definitely something to try next year, especially since we have so few maples.

I also found a post about building an outdoor wood-burning evaporator to boil down sap. If we were to collect larger amounts of sap, we would totally do this. Since we're dealing with smaller amounts, I didn't worry about it this year, especially since the moisture generated while boiling down the sap helps rehydrate our super-dry house (I do not like heat pumps- they are very inefficient and drying in colder weather).

We will continue to collect sap as long as the weather cooperates- I'll post an update later with how much syrup we end up with. If we're still here next winter I'll need to purchase more spiles and a filter so we can tap our black walnut trees also.

The weather is supposed to be warmer this weekend, so we'll be able to collect sap again. I'm thinking of cooking the sap a little further to make maple candy. Yum!

Have you made your own maple syrup?


  1. K, not to burst your bubble, but those bags are from Ohio, when we tapped the trees in our yard then. We used buckets the first year, and then got those special bags and spikes the second year because so many floaties ended up in the buckets...

    1. I don't remember tapping the trees in Ohio- it makes sense the bags aren't as old as New York, though :)

  2. We've talked about tapping our birch trees here in AK. Looks like a lot of work for not very much syrup. =)