I have been wanting to tap our sugar maple trees since we moved here, but somehow we could never come up with the money to buy the buckets, tubing, and spiles—until this year! This is our third spring here and my first year for making my own maple syrup.
My Sap Collection System
I searched online and couldn’t find maple syrup tapping supplies locally, so I decided to buy some plumbing fittings that looked like they would work from Menards and Lowe’s instead. After I got the trees tapped, my hubby told me there was a sign in one of the hardware stores in town that said “Maple Syrup Supplies.” I guess Google doesn’t know everything.
Anyhow, I ended up with some brass couplers, 5/16″ tubing, and 5-gallon food-safe buckets with lids. I also got a few plastic couplers because, even between the two stores, there weren’t enough of the brass ones. I don’t recommend doing this with plumbing fixtures. They worked, but they were hard to remove and I probably broke about half of them off in the trees. Get some actual maple syrup spiles.
I had to buy a drill bit, too, because I didn’t have one long enough. You need to drill 3 1/2″ to 4″ into the tree. After drilling the hole, you just tap the spile into the tree with a mallet and attach the tubing.
I drilled 5/16″ holes in the lids of the pails to accommodate the tubing. I did this ahead of time before I went out to tap the trees, and I labeled each lid from A to I (leaving out B because I didn’t tap that tree) so I could see at a glance how many holes to drill in each tree.
The first hole I drilled in a tree started dripping right away. That was really exciting, and it was nice to see that it was actually going to work! I was a little worried that the sap wouldn’t run when I saw air bubbles appear in the lines, but it still ran fine.
Boiling the Sap, Take 1: The Rocket Stove
I started out boiling the sap outdoors. They say you can’t do it in your kitchen because the steam will make your walls and ceiling sticky. I wasn’t too worried about my walls and ceiling since they’re still unpainted drywall (we ran out of money to fix things), but I thought I should try to do it the “right” way.
I built this two-burner rocket stove from the instructions in this YouTube video. I’m telling you this because I believe in giving credit where credit is due—not because I think you should run out and buy six cinder blocks to make your own rocket stove.
I’m not impressed with this rocket stove design. Granted, it may be that I just did it wrong. However, even though the sticks were burning and I had plenty of hot coals, it didn’t get hot enough under the pans where I needed the heat. I also had problems with burning sticks falling out of the stove onto the dry leaves on the ground (yikes!), and I had ash flying into my pans, which gave my first batch of syrup a little extra smoky flavor. Fortunately, that first batch was only about a pint anyhow.
Boiling the Sap, Take 2: The Kitchen
It turns out that “they” were wrong about the walls and ceiling getting sticky. I made eight quarts of maple syrup in the house and had no problem with sticky walls. The house did get hot, though. We had to open some windows to keep it comfortable. Maybe that’s why the walls didn’t get sticky—it all went out the windows! I suspect it’s something else, though. It should be just water evaporating, after all, not sugar, and water isn’t sticky.
Filtering the Sap
At some point, you need to filter either the sap, the syrup, or both. Commercial producers usually filter both, but having tried to filter finished syrup, I can tell you that it is slow going and you will probably lose quite a bit of syrup in the filter.
I also found that filtering the sap too early in the process doesn’t keep gunk from accumulating as the sap boils down. It is best to wait until the sap is getting darker and is getting close to being done. Then you can filter it and put it back on to boil again.
There are special filters sold for both sap and syrup. However, I was out of money, so I used paper towels in a sieve and put the sieve over a big stock pot.
How to Tell When the Maple Syrup is Done
There are a few ways to tell when the maple syrup is done, but we’re going to talk about just two of them: temperature and the apron test.
When the sap reaches 7.1 degrees above the boiling point of water, it is no longer sap; it is syrup. Since the boiling point of water can vary slightly due to atmospheric conditions, it’s best to test with water on the same day that you finish off your syrup. You should also use the same thermometer for both. A candy thermometer is recommended, but I don’t have one so I used a meat thermometer.
To do an apron test, you stick a metal object such as a knife into the boiling sap and watch to see if it streaks off or if it forms a line and sort of clings to the knife. In the photo above, the sap has not yet turned into syrup. Apparently, I forgot to take an “after” photo. Maybe next year.
I did take a video of the apron test, though. Please forgive the “ums.” This is my first YouTube video:
Canning the Finished Maple Syrup
Maple syrup is probably the easiest thing in the world to can. First, wash your jars and lids and let them dry. Once the syrup is ready, pour it into the jars, put the lids on top, and screw the rings on. Wait for them to cool and check to see if they sealed.
If you’re using regular canning jars and lids, you can tell whether a jar sealed by pressing down in the center of the lid with your finger. If it doesn’t move, it’s sealed. Unsealed lids will go down when you press on them and then pop back up. If any of the jars don’t seal, put them in the fridge and use them first.
Maple syrup has a high enough sugar content that it should keep pretty much indefinitely. However, mold can form if you don’t boil it long enough. If you boil it too long, crystals could form in the jar. You can eat the crystals; they won’t hurt you. Don’t eat the mold, though! It’s possible to salvage the syrup by straining the mold off and re-boiling the syrup to the proper temperature, if you’re brave enough to try it.
The finished maple syrup should be stored in a cool, dark place.
2014 Maple Syrup Stats
Number of trees tapped: 8
Number of taps: 18
Gallons of sap: 79.75
Quarts of syrup: 8 (plus a little)
Estimated time involved: 32.5 hours