I know it’s a bit early for making maple syrup, but for those of you who are new to this, you are running out of time to easily identify your trees in advance of spring. Now maple syrup is indeed made in the spring, but very early spring. Anyone but a syrup maker would still call it winter as in my area the sap can begin to flow in late January into February. There will be no leaves on the trees, nor will there even be buds. The past years leaves will be blown and scattered about from under the trees they fell off of and snow will likely cover the rest. The time to mark your trees is now!
Just so you know a bit about what goes into this, last year when I made syrup I drilled 11 taps and got 74 gallons of sap that ran about 2.5% sugar content. When boiled down this gave me 14 pints of fine homemade maple syrup. This will not be a full tutorial on making your own maple syrup but I will put up a full tutorial as the season begins. I am in the southern regions of where you can get good syrup making weather so I will be ahead of most of you if you follow me through the season and process. What we will cover here is identifying your trees, and the tools and equipment you need with a brief explanation of their use so you are ready when the sap starts to flow.
Sugar maples are what most people look for when wanting to make maple syrup, but most other maples make fine syrup as well. The best differentiating trait that identifies the sugar maple trees from the other maples is that they hold their winged seed through the summer and drop them in the fall, whereas all the other maples lose theirs in the early summer.
Having said that many of the people that I have talked to over the years tap a mix of maples and make fine syrup. I personally have made syrup from silver as well as red maple trees, but they do contain about ½% lower sugar content in the sap than the sugar maple. One year I used all red maples and was pleasantly surprised by a syrup that had a buttery flavor to it. That is one I would like to try again just to see if it was the fact that all I used was red maples, or if it was the geographic location and soil conditions that gave the unique buttery flavor.
Properly tapped trees will suffer no ill side effects as long as you choose healthy trees and do not tap any smaller than 10 inches in diameter. Trees 10-18 inches in diameter should have no more than one tap. A tree 18-25 inches in diameter should have no more than two taps, and at 25 inches in diameter and larger you should have no more than three taps. I have seen trees with over a half dozen buckets hanging off of them looking like they were being bled dry. Be kind to your trees so they outlive you and are there for the next generation of syrup makers!
On to the tools you will need and a brief description of their use. To tap the trees you will need a cordless drill or hand auger with a sharp 5/16ths or 7/16ths drill bit (depending on the size of the tap/spile that you choose) to drill into your trees and insert your tap (also known as a spile) with a mallet or hammer.
You will also need sap pails, bags, or buckets to catch the sap. As you can see above I use 1 gallon HDPE jugs from store bought juice to catch the sap. I also get 3-5 gallon HDPE buckets from my local bakery for free after they have emptied the frosting from them. They are food safe and very convenient if more than one tap will be going into a tree or for storing medium quantities of sap through the week for boiling down on the weekends.
To boil down your sap I like to use food service stainless steam table pans and a stainless spoon or ladle to skim the foam off from the sap as it is boiling.
These are the pans I use for the main evaporation. I like the square corners for setting down on masonry hearths when using a wood fire for heat. As the sap concentrates I ladle some of it to the smaller pan near the cooler front of the fire then add more preheated sap to the main pan where the fire is hotter. Typically you can find these pans for pennies on the dollar at your local scrap yard.
Here is a pan of sap finishing on the stove top. You can see the extra small bubbles forming instead of the large bubbles when evaporating. These start to form as the sugar content is just about at the syrup stage.
I do not remember the last time I used a candy thermometer as I have just learned over the years how the bubbles should look and how the syrup sheets off of a spoon (like when making candy) when it is syrup. For your first few times however I would suggest you use a candy thermometer and an endpoint of 7F degrees above the boiling temperature of water. Test your thermometer as well as your altitude by calibrating your thermometer in a pan of water at a rapid boil. Whatever temperature it reads when in a pan of boiling water, add the 7 degrees to that number and you will have the correct temperature for finished syrup at your altitude and with your thermometer.
Now for filtering small batches of syrup I just use a well cleaned coffee filter basket with regular coffee filters. If it is a dark colored basket be sure to clean it very well as any coffee residue could end up contaminating your syrup. Filtering is all about surface area and these baskets have ridges on the bottom and sides so the whole filter is used. I filter sap this way before evaporating, once more a bit before syrup stage, and finally at the syrup stage pipping hot as I bottle it. You will never get it through a filter cool once it is syrup, trust me on that.
What jars to use for finished syrup, you can use almost any glass container with a good lid however I find canning jars work well for me. This is a quart to the left, but small mouth pints are actually more convenient if you wish to pour directly out of them. I also like to seal my syrup by canning it in a hot water bath. If you do not water bath can your syrup, you can just store it in your refrigerator as is for over 6 months with no problem.
A brief word about wood as a heat source for boiling down sap. First, now is the time to gather it so it is dry enough to use come syrup time. You must not use any wood that you would not want the flavor of in your syrup. Just like smoking meats, some of the wood smoke flavor will come through and for that reason I try to use maple wood as it is milder that hickory or oak. How much smoke flavor comes through in your finished product depends greatly on how your evaporation rig is designed. Some like a little smoke flavor, some do not. Just be aware, and by no means use pallet wood for fuel as it has poisonous chemical preservatives in it!
Well I hope you enjoyed the little primer and look forward to you joining us as we go through the process this spring step by step in more detail. If you want to try something novel find some black walnut or sweet birch trees to make syrup if you do not have maples available near you. If I am feeling ambitious, perhaps I will cover how to make some black walnut or birch syrup as well this year.
Get out there and mark your trees and I will be back with you to walk through the whole process as the season starts!
In the meantime if you have any questions or comments join us on the forum Forum Topic: Prepping to Make Maple Syrup
PS; a one stop website for syrup making supplies https://www.leaderevaporator.com/