As anybody from the Northeast (or Canada, ay!) can tell you, we are nipple deep into maple syrup season. Yes, there is indeed a season for this and it happens late each winter when daytime temps start to get above freezing consistently. The ideal sap situation is when it is above freezing during the day but drops back below freezing at night.
I had been wanting to tap a sugar maple ever since returning to the Least Coast almost 4 years ago where maple trees are in abundance, and I finally got a golden opportunity to this year. My neighbor graciously allowed B and I to to tap the huge sugar maple in his backyard. The process of tapping and collecting was actually quite easy, though the final processing part was not. That said, overall the adventure was quite satisfying, and as my wife would say <with gentle sarcasm> it was "everything I had wanted and more."
Why bother? Come on mang, why not? You get to use your hands and tools to make something from the earth that is delicious and makes people happy. I challenge you to be angry while eating a stack of pancakes coated in maple syrup that you made yourself. If you've got the trees, it's a great way to establish a tradition of conservation and respect for nature with your kids as well. Tapping the tree doesn't hurt it, and if you are responsible you can harvest the delicious, renewable sap year after year. As if that wasn't enough, you can use maple syrup in a number of exceptionally tasty drinks.
So here's a quick recap - there are many great resources on the Webs that will tell you when/how to tap maple trees in more detail should you find my experience wanting.
By far the easiest part. I drilled a 1/2 inch hole in the tree, lightly pounded in the spile with a hammer and wham-o! Instant sap spigot. It started flowing immediately, and was the most exciting 2 drips/second event of my life. Metal spiles are easy to find during sap season, and the kind I got came with a metal hook to hang the bucket from. Instead of using buckets I pimped out some gallon sized water jugs:
Key learnings: Tapping the tree is easy, do not fear it. Also, test out your bucket hanging system in advance to make sure it will be angled properly under the spout and can hold the weight of the sap.
Collection and Storage
We were surprised at how fast the jugs filled up. I was pretty much emptying them every morning and evening for the first 2 days. The weather got really warm and things became more erratic after that, but I was emptying them daily. I got a 4 gallon water jug of the type that are used in large water coolers to hold the sap. I originally just planned to hang onto it until the season was over and then have a little syrup boil down party, but I was informed that the sap does not stay fresh very long and it is best to make the syrup as quickly as possible. Doh! It sat outside next to the tree, which seemed ok because the outside temp never really got above 40 degrees or so.
Key learnings: Sap collects fast, so ideally you can start boiling it down right away. If not, make sure you have a vessel(s) large enough to hold it all. Also, little bits of bark and stuff get all up in the jugs or buckets, so rig up a cover. I also used cheesecloth to strain the sap as I transferred it from the jugs.
Once I realized there was nowhere to store the additional sap that was showing no signs of stopping, I started boiling down the first batch. I got my largest stock pot, filled it up and put it on the stove. It took all day to boil down, and was ultimately uneventful. Booooring.
The inside of the house got humid and steamy, and overall this experience was sub-optimal. So, for the next batch I borrowed a huge 5-gallon aluminum pot from my neighbor (in exchange for a share of the profit) and boiled it down under a fire in the backyard. I can now understand some of the more earth, visceral appeal of cooking of maple sugaring, as the old timers call it. Up here, they build sugar shacks and have wide, shallow evaporators that boil the excess water off quickly. It is quite satisfying to tend the fire and enjoy the last vestiges of winter knowing that soon, very soon, that sweet nectar will be yours.
So, once the sap boiled down to about 2-3 cups, I brought it inside to finish on the stove. I figured that a more controlled environment would be better to prevent burning it or overcooking it, or whatever. In any case, I read that the finished syrup should boil at 7 degrees above the boiling point of water at your elevation. You can use a candy thermometer for this if you have it. So, 219 degrees later there we were:
Key learnings: Do your boiling outside. Once again, strain the liquid through a cheesecloth when you transfer it, because little bits get in there from the fire and nature and stuff.
Gotta move that syrup somewhere, and like all good hipsters I happened to have a few mason jars handy (you sterilize these first). Now, as I found out, there are some naturally occurring mineral particulates that you need to filter out of the final product right before you bottle. You do this while the liquid is hot because it needs to be as viscous as possible to pass through the filter. In this case, a pour-over unit:
That's it! All in, I had to boil down 3 times, but I did get about 45 ounces of syrup out of the deal, which I call a win. I will say that that while the syrup is delicious, it has a less potent mapley taste than the store bought variety I compared it with. I'm sure that there is much more to the craft part of this that accounts for the taste, and I look forward to learning and improving my technique and the product each year. So, I encourage you to try this out if you can. Put it on your calendar for next year. It's fun.