(Editor’s Note: This is part two of last week’s maple syrup column.)
Useable maple sap may flow for four to six weeks depending on weather conditions.
Trees should be tapped when they are between 10 to 12 inches in diameter. Trees greater than 18 inches in diameter may receive two taps. Using more than two taps per tree is discouraged.
Unhealthy trees or trees of low vigor should not be tapped.
You should place the tap hole at least 2 inches to the side and 12 inches above or below the hole from previous years. Taps placed close to previous holes are likely not to produce sap. Tap holes will usually close within three years.
Some trees have been tapped for 100 years, showing that careful tapping does not damage trees.
Use a 5/16 inch bit to drill a hole 1½ to 2 inches deep into the white wood at a slightly upward angle. The upward angle will help facilitate sap flow. Take care not to oval the tap hole so the tap (spile) will fit snugly and close quickly. Tap holes should not be drilled into frozen wood.
Commercial spiles are available from suppliers in many styles. You may also make the spiles yourself from sumac wood.
The style you choose will depend on your collection method. If you use buckets for collection, you will require a different spile than if you plan to use plastic tubing. Remove the spiles carefully at the end of each syrup season. Tap holes do not need to be plugged as this can interfere with hole closure.
You’ll need one collecting bucket for every tap hole, which can become expensive. If you are just starting out, you may want to experiment with plastic. Although I’m not fond of plastic, these buckets or jugs cost nothing and are light, easy to clean, and rustproof.
Make a small hole in the side of each container, near the top, and hang the bucket from the hook of one of the inserted spiles. Most commercial buckets have holes in them already.
A bucket should hold a day’s run of sap. On a good day, a good tap in a good tree will produce more than five gallons. However, the best syrup is made from the freshest sap, you’ll probably want to empty each collector can at least once a day. With frequent emptying, you won’t worry about overflowing buckets.
All containers, spouts, fittings, tanks and buckets that contact the sap should be of materials like glass, plastic or stainless steel that can be thoroughly cleaned. Metals that rust and contaminate the syrup should be treated with a lead-free nontoxic paint.
Once you have collected and transported the sap to a central location, you can begin the process of evaporating and producing syrup. Sap should be filtered to remove debris and other foreign material before boiling.
Sap must be boiled outside or in a well-ventilated building to allow the “steam” to escape. You do NOT want this water vapor in your house.
It takes about 40 gallons of sap from sugar maples to make one gallon of syrup. Other species of maples can require up to 80 gallons of sap to produce a gallon of syrup. That’s a lot of water to be boiled off.
You will need several pieces of equipment: a heating source, evaporating pans or continuous-flow evaporator, thermometer, filtering material, and bottles for storing the syrup. You can make the evaporator yourself, or purchase one from an equipment dealer. You can find quality used equipment from a producer who is changing his or her operation. If the equipment list seems long, don’t be discouraged. Most of the equipment can be improvised or bought secondhand.
The heating source is called an “arch” in maple syrup production. For very small producers, this may be an old stove or constructed from concrete blocks and a smoke stack. The larger the evaporating pans you use, the quicker the entire process. Whatever you use as an evaporator, it must be lead free. If you have more than 50 taps, purchase a continuous-flow systems from a supplier.
Sap will boil at the same temperature as water, 212 degrees Fahrenheit (F), but the exact boiling point depends on elevation and barometric pressure. Determine the boiling point of water and add about 7.5 F for the finished temperature of syrup. Your syrup will have reached the correct density when it boils at seven degrees above the boiling point of water. Clarifying, both water and sap boil — at sea level — at 212 F. As sap is concentrated into syrup, however, its boiling point rises because of its increased sugar content. The syrup is considered finished when the concentrating sugar has raised the syrup’s boiling point seven degrees Fahrenheit. At sea level, when maple syrup boils at 219 F, it is finished, standardized syrup. One gallon of finished syrup weighs 11 pounds.
A candy thermometer accurate to the nearest degree should be used to determine the boiling point. While boiling, the sap will roll and foam.
Over-boiling will cause the syrup to be darker than desired and may cause the syrup to taste scorched or burned greatly reducing the value of the finished syrup.
Faster boiling will yield higher quality syrup, so controlling the heat during the finishing process is critical. Many producers do not finish the syrup in the large evaporator. They will draw it off at a lower concentration and then finish the syrup in a smaller pan where the temperature can be better controlled.
When you have finished syrup, you will need to filter it before filling the bottles or containers. You will need to pour it through a filter to eliminate debris and other gunk that can fall into the pan during the boil.
It’s also a good idea to filter again when it’s still-hot syrup, to strip out what’s commonly called “sugar sand.” These gritty bits are just the natural minerals that exist in the syrup. They’re safe to eat but can give the syrup an unusual texture. Commercially available clean wool or felt is traditionally used to filter hot syrup. Use paper filters before the wool filter to extend the wool filters’ useful life.
Removing the gritty sugar sand will make your syrup clearer and results in a finished product that looks and tastes good. If you increase production size, you should consider purchasing a filter press designed for filtering syrup to make the filtration process much easier and quicker.
The distance of the maple trees (or “sugar bush”) from the storage and production facilities and the collection method you use will determine the time required for you to collect sap. Then, depending on the size of your evaporator, it will take many hours to boil the sap down to syrup. It is recommended that you begin production by tapping a few trees and making a small amount of syrup to see if the enterprise is suited for you.
The new sapping season starts in late winter; tours usually begin in early spring. That’s a great time to visit a maple sugar orchard and see a sugaring demonstration; watch them make maple syrup. Most can share where they get supplies, answer questions and tell you the time requirement that is involved. They can help you on your journey to making your own sweet treat.
(Leighow has been a Penn State Extension Master Gardener of Columbia County since 1995 and gardens in Numidia.)