Making maple syrup is the perfect activity to say “goodbye” to winter and welcome the muddy, messy of year that let’s us know that spring is here. This four-part series will cover what you need to know to get started making maple syrup.
How it Works
Maple syrup is concentrated from tree sap, which contains sugars that the tree uses to grow and develop. In the fall, while we’re busy taking photographs and enjoying glorious fall colors, the trees are hard at work moving carbohydrates (think: sugars!) and nutrients from the leaves down into their root systems to store them over the winter. Then, in the spring, warmer temperatures signal to the trees that it’s time to send those sugars and nutrients back up into the branches to begin making leaves for the next growing season.
When we tap a tree, we are tapping into a flow of sap that’s essentially being pumped from the tree roots into the aboveground portion of the tree. This pump is most effective when the days warm to temperatures above freezing, but the nights cool to below freezing. This “sapping season” can last from 4 to 6 weeks, but varies in the timing and length based on the weather in a particular year.
In places like southern Ohio, the season can start as early as the beginning of February. Where I live in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the peak season typically falls starts in mid-March and runs into mid-April. This is just about perfect because this is typically a boring time of year where the snow conditions are deteriorating (or we’re just sick of the snow!) and it’s still too muddy, mucky, or icy to get out for spring activities. So, maple syruping it is!
The Steps to Make Syrup
Here’s an overview of the steps involved in making syrup. Here, we cover the basics of what you’ll need to get ready, and future posts will provide the details on the next steps.
1) Prepping: Get your supplies in order before or at the beginning of the season.
2) Tapping: Place taps in the trees to collect syrup when the days are about to warm above freezing to take advantage of the beginning of the sap run.
3) Collecting: The sap will start to run once daytime temperatures warm above freezing. The timing varies a lot from year to year because of the weather, but the taps can be in the trees about 6 weeks to capture the bulk of the season.
4) Boiling: Make syrup from the collected from the sap.
5) Enjoying: Immediately! And all year long!
What You’ll Need
Now, it is important to note that making maple syrup is not the cheapest or easiest way to get this wonderful golden substance. It takes at least some equipment and a fair amount of time to make syrup, and some people have learned the hard way that all the fancy supplies can cost a lot of money. But the point here is not to procure maple syrup at the most reasonable price—it’s to have fun playing outside while the spring comes! And to do that, you can get by with just the basics.
Supplies for Tapping
Trees: Most syrup is made from sugar maples because its sap has the highest sugar content, although it is possible to make syrup from other tree species like red maple or yellow birch. Look for larger trees that are at least 10–12 inches in diameter because they’ll produce more syrup and be less stressed by the tapping.
Spiles (& Hooks): The spile, or tap, is the metal or plastic device that’s inserted into the tree to transfer sap into a bucket. Some spiles will have hooks that hold a bucket, while other will require a hook to be placed around the spile before its inserted into the tree. Older spiles may also require a special driver for getting the spile in place.
Drill, Bit, & Hammer: You’ll drill a hole into the tree before inserting the spile, and then gently tap the spile into the hole. You’ll need a 5/16” or 7/16” bit, depending on the size of your spiles.
Buckets & Lids (or Other Containers): Just about type of food-grade collection container can be used to collect sap. These can include the traditional metal buckets with lids, newer blue sap bags, food-grade buckets, or even well-cleaned milk jugs. Just make sure that the top is covered to reduce sun exposure and prevent twigs and other things from falling into the container.
Supplies for Boiling
Heat source: You can boil over a wood fire or use an outdoor grill or burner. It’s best to boil outside—you can boil sap inside on your kitchen stove, but it will create lots of moisture and even make your walls a bit sticky!
Large Pot, Pan, or Evaporator: The sap will have to boil a long time to evaporate the water and reduce it down to delicious, magical syrup. Larger systems typically use a large, shallow metal pan for boiling, which increases the surface area available for evaporation. But, for smaller batches, a large pan can be used. You may also want to have a smaller pot available for “finishing” the syrup once it’s fairly thick.
Filters: The syrup will be filtered at the end. Coffee filters can be used for small batches, or larger cone-shaped filters can be purchased for larger amounts.
Jars & Lids: For the final product!
The next post in this series explains how to tap trees and start collecting sap.
In the meantime, tell us about your plans for syrup season. What are you looking forward to most?