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Tapping maple trees is easy and the rewards are sweet. Much of the process consists of a waiting game. Even for those who know and love the taste of maple products, nothing quite compares to the flavor of fresh, warm, homemade syrup.

I first got sap from my trees last year, but I only used plastic pop bottles on tiny holes I made with a nail. This did not yield much sap, although the taste of the syrup produced was phenomenal. It made me seek more, and I vowed to buy some real equipment and try my hand at making gallons of it. I had long been a customer of Big Tree Maple, and I probably will still get the occasional item from them, but let’s just say that this season has shown me that I have no need to purchase syrup from anyone else ever again.

I purchased a set of a dozen used, ~2 gallon aluminum buckets, new aluminum spiles (spouts), and flat metal lids. I wanted the aluminum buckets because they had a good combination of durability and light weight, and the price was very right – $4 apiece, as compared to brand new steel buckets at $20 apiece. Nothing was wrong with them, except that a few had minor dents that do not affect their functionality. To avoid more dents, I have taken them down when the wind gets above 40+ miles per hour (if they’re empty – full buckets are heavy, and stay on the trees extremely well).

The only things I have to store my sap in are a set of large camp water jugs, which I carry to the trees and fill using a long funnel. You can use whatever containers you want, as long they’re food safe and clean. I sometimes get a little overflow of my sap buckets if I’m not home to watch them on a really strong flow day, but for someone like me, that’s not a concern, because it’s all I can do to keep up with it anyway. Sometimes I’ll even sip from the buckets before I mix them in the jugs, and if a tree doesn’t taste sweet that day or the sap seems mixed with rainwater, I’ll dump it out and only use the best sap.

Many of the Acer species can be used for sugaring. Sugar maple is one of the best, because it’s sugar content is high and it buds later than others. However, red maple, Norway maple, black maple, silver maple, and box elder are all examples of other Acer species that will work. I only have 7 trees tapped – 3 have 1 tap/bucket, 2 have 2, and 1 has 3. One with a single tap is a silver maple, and all the rest are sugars. By far the best producing trees, both in volume of sap and sugar content of sap, are the largest three sugar maples. This makes sense, because maples with less competition and larger crowns are able to produce more sugar. On a good day, I can get over 20 gallons of sap. My trees are also more sugary than the ‘average’ maple in the 40:1 figure given for sap:syrup – my ratio has varied anywhere from the high 20s to low 30s:1.

I boil on my kitchen stove only, so I can only make a couple of pints in a day, as my evaporation rates are far less than with a dedicated evaporator. For the quickest evaporation, it’s important to use flat pans with as large of a surface area as possible. I also keep the screens and doors open when I do this – if you don’t, the house steams up in a hurry, to the point of damaging humidity-sensitive things if you have any. This is another main reason an outdoor evaporator or a setup in a sugarhouse is better, but I don’t have the money for that right now.

I started at the very beginning of February, and have since produced several gallons of syrup. The season began early this year. Sap flows when days are above freezing and nights are below. The syrup starts out light in color and flavor, and darkens/deepens as the season goes on. However, this early season might also come to a somewhat early end, because the warm temperatures will signal the trees to bud, and sap that flows during budding is not suitable for use due to off flavors.

I take out bugs/detritus before and after boiling with a simple metal strainer – the kind made for tiny pasta.

How to tap a maple tree:

  • – Select your maple tree(s). A tree of a diameter greater than 10 inches or so can have 1 tap. A tree 18-24 inches can have 2, and a tree even bigger than that can have 3. You should not put more than 3 on a tree, or put any at all on a smaller tree. If you’re only doing a few/just starting out, it helps if the trees are near your house or somewhere you can get to them easily. You can use maple trees in the city, too! Just get permission if they’re not on your land.
  • – Get your supplies together. You’ll need something to drill with, a hammer, something to catch the sap, and something to hang that sap-collector on. If the sap-collector is open at the top, it’s also best to have some type of lid, to prevent debris from getting inside (there will still be little gnats, especially in warm weather.) You don’t have to buy nice buckets. You can use simple things like milk jugs with the side cut open, and any type of improvised spile. Just don’t use anything that might be toxic to you or the tree.

  • – Drill into the tree at a slight upward angle. You don’t need a gigantic hole. Just make one appropriate for your spiles. My spiles use a 7/16″ drill bit, and I just use a cheap Ryobi cordless drill. You could use a hand drill/brace too. It’s best not to drill on the most north facing side, because sap flows better on the other sides from sun exposure. Try to hold the drill steady, so you don’t make the hole irregularly shaped. Don’t drill too deep, either – it only needs to be 1-2″ deep at most, and the shallower you can get it while still being effective, the less of a wound it will leave. Also, don’t use any visibly wounded area or any area very close to any unhealed old tap sites.

  • – Put your spile/spout into the hole you just drilled. To make sure it will stay in place, give it a few taps with a hammer. Don’t hit it really hard, as you can split the tree slightly, causing sap leakage around the spile. It doesn’t need to be in all the way, just enough to be snug in the hole. Hang your container. If the sap is flowing, you should see droplets already.

  • – Put the lid on and wait. That’s all. Sap will fill the container, and you’ll have to come by and empty it. You can boil it by whatever means you wish – some have even used turkey fryers. Just consider your fuel costs, and remember what I said about the humidity if you do it in the house! Ventilate, ventilate, ventilate.

You don’t need to keep too close of watch on the boiling sap at first, but it should be checked at regular intervals. It does create a little foam on top that you should skim off and discard. Keep adding more sap to your pan as the level boils down. You’ll get the hang of the speed after a few tries. (If you NEED to leave and it’s not done, do not leave it cooking, as it can burn and ruin your pan. You should take it off of the stove and refrigerate it during the time you’re not cooking it.)

After a while, you’ll notice that the bubbles start looking different. They also begin sticking together as they rise. They start out larger, but turn small and more foamy looking as it gets very close to becoming syrup. The syrup is done when it reaches 7.1 degrees above the boiling point of water, which varies with your location and can be measured with a candy thermometer beforehand. You can also tell when the syrup is done using a hydrometer. Some people filter the syrup through wool, felt, or cheesecloth to remove the sugar sand in the bottom of the pan. This ‘sand’ is only tiny crystals of the natural minerals of the syrup, and is not harmful, but it’s your choice if you’d like to remove it to create a clearer product.

The syrup can be put immediately into sterilized jars, and will keep on the shelf for a long time in a sealed condition. It should be refrigerated after opening. You could also simply store it in any old container in the fridge, but it won’t keep as well. Very extended storage will affect the quality, causing darkening and some flavor loss.

You’ll soon find that even with a few trees tapped, it’s easy to make a good quantity of syrup. It’s not difficult to sell, as many people love it, although you may want to check the regulations in your area/state for legality or other requirements. I’ve had people asking me for syrup or for prices before I even suggested I was thinking of selling. Set your prices based on other producers in the area and on your fuel/jar costs.

Even if you don’t sell it, it also makes a great gift, although I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to hoard it all.

All you need to do at the end of every season is take the buckets down and pull out your spiles, and then give everything a good cleaning/scrubbing before storage so bacteria don’t grow on the leftover sugar. Buckets like mine, which nest together nicely, are best stored fully dry or on their sides, else they have a tendency to stick together a little. Then, when the next season comes, rinse things off and it’s all ready to go again. If you used milk cartons, pop bottles, or other disposables, you can skip this altogether and just start anew if you wish. You don’t need to plug the tap holes with anything, and doing so might even impede healing. The trees will heal themselves in a few years, or sometimes in only one if especially vigorous.

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