Make Maple Syrup (Part 2): Tap Trees

As the days creep toward days above freezing, it’s time to tap trees and start collecting maple sap. In the previous post, you lined up the supplies that you’ll need: spiles, a cordless drill, a bit, containers, and a few other things.

Find the Trees

Of course, you’ll start by finding trees to tap. While you could probably make some type of syrup from just about any tree, the delicious syrup that you’ll actually want on your pancakes comes from sugar maple trees. Sugar maples have more sugar in their sap, which means that you’ll have to boil less sap to make syrup from a sugar maple than, say, a red maple.

Fortunately for me, this part of the world has tons of sugar maple trees.

tapping-collage
Tapping day at our neighborhood sugarbush.

Look for healthy trees that measure at least 10” in diameter (that’s about 32” around if you have a cloth tape measure) about 3–4 feet above the ground. Trees with large crowns, such as yard trees, and a south-facing exposure are even better. Large trees can accommodate more taps, so a tree that’s more than 18” inches in diameter (57” around) can have two taps.

Tapping!

Pick a location for each tap, making sure to stay at least 6 inches away from any previous tap holes. Aim for a location about 3 feet off the ground to make it easy to collect the sap during the season and remove the taps later in the spring. (Yooper tip: If there’s a lot of snow on the ground, you’ll want to tap the trees down by your feet so that you can still reach things when the snow melts!)

Drill a hole 2 to 2 1/2” deep into the tree, making sure to angle the hole slightly upward to encourage sap flow. The wood shavings should be light in color, signaling healthy sap wood. If the shaving are dark, try another location on the tree or move on to a different tree.

Clear any shavings from the opening of the hole. Insert the spile and gently tap it into place with a hammer. Don’t pound it! (And avoid this rookie mistake: If your spiles have separate hooks, be sure to place the hook on the spile before inserting the spile into the tree.)

Now you can hang your bucket, container, or sap bag from the spile.

Hanging old school buckets in the woods.
Hanging old school buckets in the woods.

Collecting the Sap

The sap will run on days when the temperatures start out below freezing at night and warm to above freezing during the day, since these are the conditions that cause the pressure needed to pump sap up the tree and into the tap hole. If you tap on a day with these conditions, you’ll probably see sap drip from the spile as soon as the tree is tapped.

Once the sap is running, you’ll want to save it up for making a batch of syrup. Because sap contains sugar, it can spoil when exposed to warm temperatures. This means that you will want to collect it every day or so when the conditions are warm enough for it to run. And you will definitely want to collect on any days that the temperature spikes above 50 degrees—you’re buckets are likely to be full on those days anyway!

As you collect sap, keep an eye out to make sure that it’s relatively clear. Dump any sap that’s yellow or cloudy (don’t mix it with your good sap!). As the temperatures rise and the trees break out of their winter dormancy, chemical changes in the sap will cause the sap to have an unpleasant taste. It’s likely that the sapping season will be winding down by the time this happens, but it’s another reason to avoid sap that looks questionable.

If you need to store the sap before you can boil it, keep it in a cool place out of direct sunlight. You can keep it in the snow in a shady location or the north side of a building for a few days if it doesn’t get too warm.

You’re almost there! How many trees are you tapping?

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