Nothing beats real maple syrup when it comes to flavor. It’s a natural sweetener that’s sustainable and (potentially) profitable. As we get closer and closer to maple syrup season, you may be contemplating harvesting sap and making your own syrup this year. And that’s awesome. But if you’ve never done it before, where do you start?
First, and most obvious, you need to find sugar maple trees on your property. Although there are many varieties of maple, the sugar maple is your best bet, because it has the highest sugar content. Without leaves, they may be a little tough to identify in the winter, but you can also ID by the bark. Additionally, the trees need to be at least 12 inches in diameter.
Next, you’ll want to buy and install your hardware. If you’re just starting out and don’t need a high tech system, this will involve spiles. Spiles are the taps that are inserted into the trees. You’ll drill a hole of the appropriate size for the spile directly into the tree at about chest height and at a slight upward angle to help the sap flow down. Once your spile is hammered into place, you can hang a bucket to start collecting the sap.
(If you’re planning on making a lot of syrup, you’ll want to consider hoses, vacuum lines and big tanks to collect sap – but that’s something we’ll talk about in a later post.)
The maple sap will slowly start to fill up your buckets when the weather is right. The prime time for gathering the sap in when the daytime temperatures are above freezing and the nights are below freezing – generally around March, but with the weather patterns we’ve been seeing lately, it’s best to be prepared for any time this spring! You can actually drink the sap as is (some companies even sell maple water as a thirst quencher). If the temps are just right, though, you can collect several gallons a day. That’s good, because it can take 40 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup.
Once you’ve gathered enough sap, you’ll need to start boiling it down to create syrup. For small scale sugarmakers, a turkey fryer is a good tool for this step. The boiling will make a lot of steam, so make sure you do it in a space that can handle sugar-heavy steam billowing everywhere. As it reduces, the sugar in the sap concentrates and begins to caramelize, which results in that beautiful maple syrup coloring. When the liquid reaches 219º F, it’s done. If you’re not sure, though, just keep boiling and sampling until it tastes just right.
Your last step is storing your sweet treat. Bottles can be kept in the fridge or, for long term storage, you can put it in mason jars and seal them via a boiling bath.
Good luck with your maple syrup adventures this spring!