On Valentine’s Day 8 years ago, Brian and I had a date at our local nature center to learn all about maple tree tapping from an expert. That may not be everyone’s idea of a fantastic Valentine’s Day, but for us it was magic. Our mutual dream of homesteading helped bring us together–Brian had penned me a love letter with the phrase, “land,home, farm, family, life: you and me doing all of this”– and so it was important time for us as a couple. Every year since, right around Valentine’s Day, we tap our trees, and each time it reinvogrates us as a couple, as a team, and as a family. There’s a mindfulness in the rhythym of the seasons and in the activity of working alonside them, of the reminder each year of where we started, how far we’ve come, and where we still want to go.
Syrup season heralds spring. It’s the first early spring food, a sweet reward for making it through another cold and gray winter, arriving with those first bursts of 50 degree, sunny days, just when the forest feels like it’s coming back to life. Sap flows when it’s freezing at night, forcing the tree to take in more water and nutrients from the ground and then around 45-50 degrees during the day. It needs to be just warm enough to unfreeze those nutrients on the inside of the tree, but not so warm that the tree starts to bud, generally speaking at least 42 degrees. Here in Indiana, as a result, the season lenth varies greatly each year–sometimes giving us a heady month, and others, just a few short days.
Each Valentine’s Day marks the time when I start checking the long-range forecast in earnest and tracking planting outlooks across the Midwest. Some years we’ve tapped as early as Valentine’s Day, others not until March. There are some years we’ve been tempted into tapping in January, but the yield wasn’t high and the season so sporadic we tend to wait.
I love making making maple syrup. The whole process reminds me of when Jesus turned water into wine–it’s miraculous! The sap flows out of the tree, clear at first and then turning yellow to gold to brown as the season comes to end (this is why maple syrup is graded). It doesn’t taste like much, honestly, but sap fresh from the tree is high in nutrients and electrolytes, so you can ingest it like an energy drink.
All it requires is a spile (you can purchase tree tapping spiles sets), a drill, and a hammer. You drill a hole whatever the diameter of the spile is, for us it’s about a half-inch, and then use the hammer to fit the spile into the hole. It’s not complicated, but is important to get a good seal or else your sap will be dropping from the hole and around your spile, not through it. Once your spiles are secured, you hang a food safe bucket off the hook and wait for those first few drops to appear. Sometimes your spiles might have some wood shavings blocking it, so if sap doesn’t appear (and it’s the right temperature for it to be flowing), you might need to unblock the spile to see some sap.
In our yard we have two silver maples, which will produce maple syrup, just not as concentrated as the syrup from a sugar maple. In the forest, we are so fortunate that someone a long time ago planted a sugar bush, or a grouping of sugar maples either naturally occuring or deliberately planted, as is the case with this one, and so we could tap as many as 14 trees each spring if we desired. We haven’t ever tapped that many. The average yield per tree in a good season is 30 gallons of sap. We tend to stick to no more than 5 because I struggle to keep up with the boiling on the stovetop, but if we had a sugar shack (an outdoor area for boiling), I think it’d be easier and quicker.
To get syrup, you first strain the collected sap–I use a fine mesh strainer–to filter out any bugs (yes bugs love sap!) and other solid particles. The buckets are outside and sap is nutrient dense for all living things, so you will likely be sharing sap collecting space with a wide variety of creatures. Once strained, boil the clear liquid sap down and down and down some more, being patient and watchful. Towards the end, most of it will have disappeared and you’ll think you’ve done it wrong until you notice your remaining liquid is thickening and browning and tastes sweet and delicious.
A larger surface area will boil down the liquid faster, so I tend to use a restaurant hotel pan over two burners to get the sap reduced to a caramel color, and then pour the nearly finished sap into a regular stock pot to finish off in batches. It can go from “not quite done,” to “oops I made maple sugar!” or even “oops I’ve burnt my maple sugar beyond recognition!” pretty quickly towards the end. So perhaps hours of labor can be wasted in the span of just a few minutes if you’re not careful. Investing in a good thermometer with an alarm is helpful. The sap needs to reach 220 degrees to magically transform into syrup, and once there, it can be strained again through some cheesecloth to remove any fine particles and placed in clean mason jars. There’s no need to pressure or water bath can them. I just fill them, secure the lids, and turn them upside down to cool. The lids will seal and the sugar content is so high (and the liquid already so hot) that the seals are secure and firm and the syrup safe.
In the meantime, your whole house will be filled with an intoxicating scent of tree and earth and sugar and secrets as the sap vaporizes. I wish Yankee Candle made a “boiling sap” scent because it’s hard to describe until you’ve smelled it. To me, it is the scent of re-awakening.