The Art of Maple Sugaring
Partake in a time-honored tradition using age-old and modern methods
Partake in a time-honored tradition using age-old and modern methods
The bounty of the maple tree (sugar, syrup, etc.) has been used for what seems forever. My Native American ancestors tapped these trees long before the first Europeans set foot on our shores, but once they arrived, these early pioneers soon learned the value of this delicious resource.
From then on, maple sugaring has been a staple skill of the Northeast and anywhere else sugar maple trees grow. Throughout the years, the craft has become big business, but with a little work and simple tools, you can harvest your own at a fraction of the cost of commercially processed syrup.
While commercial sugaring operations tap acres and acres of trees, those looking to produce syrup for their family can get away with tapping 10-12 trees or even fewer. Though all maples and birches can be tapped, it’s the sap of the sugar maple that’s in most demand. As the name suggests, sugar maple sap has the highest sugar content and produces the best syrup.
I like to combine old and new ways of maple sugaring to produce maple syrup for my family each year. With the season just a few months away, now is the time to plan a course of action.
“Sap is generally about 90% water, and according to my research, I found it takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup.”
Some Call it Cheap; I Call it Frugal
Before starting my quest for maple syrup, I did my homework. I visited old farms and historical societies to learn the old ways. I visited modern maple-sugaring operations to learn modern methods. I also visited the Trapp Family Lodge in Vermont. Though very modern in some respects, they still believe in some of the old ways, and that includes how they conduct their maple-sugaring operation. With information in hand, I forged ahead.
Before I began, I also considered expenses. Modern maple-sugaring experts use miles of plastic hose to bring the sap back to the sugar house where it’s boiled down. I wanted to do things the old way using metal taps and buckets.
I visited the nearest supply store and found that metal taps, just like those used before plastic tubing, cost $4 each, and galvanized buckets without a cover cost $19 each. Being the frugal Yankee that I am, I decided to make my own gear.
I purchased an 8-foot length of metal electrical conduit for $2 (I checked a scrap yard, but couldn’t find any). Then I collected plastic 1-gallon and ½-gallon milk and water jugs to use instead of metal buckets. For $4, I bought 3 feet of ¾-inch plastic hose to run from my taps
to the jugs. For a grand total of $6, I was all set to create my sugaring equipment.
Making the Taps
With a hacksaw, I cut 10 pieces, 3 ½ inches long, from the length of conduit. Next, I cut a 1 ½-inch notch to form the area where the sap would run into the plastic tubing and into the jug. I cut another 1-inch notch in the other end of the conduit. I crimped that end of the conduit to approximately 3/8-inch diameter, which is the size of the hole I made in the tree. Finally, I drilled a hole in the tap so I could run a piece of wire through it to secure the jug to the tap. By the way, the wire was leftover electrical cable that I had lying around; it cost me nothing.
Finding the Trees
Though I have maples on my property, my neighbor has some huge sugar maples, so I asked for permission to tap his trees. He gave me the OK in exchange for a percentage of whatever I took. I made 10 taps, though I decided to use only six, which was plenty. Besides, that was how many jugs I had. I used a seventh jug to collect sap and carry it to a basin where I stored it prior to boiling.
Tapping the Trees
Originally, I wanted to do this project the old way—drilling the holes with a nonelectrical, hand-powered drill, but I gave up that idea and opted for an electric drill with a 3/8-inch bit instead. I drilled holes at an upward angle and only drilled into the soft, white outer wood. The upward angle harnesses the power of gravity to assist the flow of sap into the jug.
Once the hole was drilled, I used a rubber mallet to insert the tap. I ran a wire through
the hole in the tap to fix a jug in place. Before I placed the jug, though, I put about 6 inches of ¾-inch plastic tubing onto the tap, which fit perfectly, and then into the opening in the jug. With everything in place, I moved to the next tree and repeated the steps.
The trees were producing sap quickly, and within an hour, I already had to empty the jugs. Commercial operators have large holding tanks, but I didn’t—or did I? I needed to find something to hold the sap. That’s when I grabbed one of my many coolers, lined it with a clean plastic bag, and started dumping the sap into it. As the cooler began to fill up, I started boiling.
Once again, I wanted to do things as old school as possible. I grabbed my propane camp stove and a propane bottle and fired up the stove. Placing my Lodge 5-quart, cast-iron Dutch oven onto the stove, I filled it up with sap and started boiling. Even though cast iron transfers heat quickly, it still took a long time to boil down the sap.
I had so much sap that I also had to commandeer my wife’s 6-quart pot just to keep up. The amount of boiling required depends on how much you want to concentrate the sap’s sugar content. Sap is generally about 90% water, and according to my research, I found it takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. There is a real science to this, but I based my boiling time on color and thickness. Sap starts out clear, like water, but as it boils down, it darkens. The more water you boil off, the darker it becomes. Use caution; if you boil it down too much, the sugar
will burn on the bottom of the pan and ruin your syrup.
Once the boiling process is complete, it’s time to bottle the syrup. You can easily put it in one large container for your own use, but I tried to think like our ancestors. Maple syrup is valuable to lots of people, so I bottled my syrup in 12-ounce containers that I’d thoroughly cleaned and then saved. You could also use Mason jars, if you have them. I bottled the syrup so that I could proudly trade a bottle here and there for other items.
Whether you cover your sap buckets or not, there’ll always be a small amount of debris in the bottom of your pan. Before bottling, strain your syrup through a cheesecloth. A coffee filter will work, but cheesecloth is better, and for a couple of dollars, it’s a worthwhile investment. This filtering allows you to keep as much of the debris out of your bottled syrup as possible.
The Tradition Lives On
Despite what some people believe, with a little hard work and creative thinking, you can gather sap and produce your own maple syrup. Despite our need, or desire, to do things the old way, perhaps the best approach is to combine the old and new for maximum results.
I used electric drills, plastic tubing and propane for the “new,” and I used a cast-iron pot and homemade taps for the “old.” I also used some materials I had on hand: plastic jugs and recycled glass bottles. By merging pioneer frugalness with modern technology, I produced maple syrup for my own family and for trade. That’s hard to beat.
“… maple sugaring has been a staple of the Northeast and anywhere else sugar maple trees grow.”
This conduit was cut into tree taps. PHOTOS BY DANA BENNER
The author cuts a notch into one end of the conduit sections.
In the old days, trees were tapped using a hand-operated drill like this one. The author opted for a power drill, and then hammered the taps in using a rubber mallet.
The author made his own tree-tapping equipment using materials that totaled a mere $6. PHOTOS BY DANA BENNER
Benner boiled down his maple sap using a modest propane-fueled cook stove and a Lodge Manufacturing Dutch oven kettle. PHOTOS BY DANA BENNER
Once the sap is boiled down and turns into finished syrup, the author strains it through cheesecloth to remove unwanted debris.
(above) Sugar shacks are commonly used by amateurs and pros alike for boiling down maple sap. PHOTO BY DANA BENNER
Once the boiled syrup has been strained, pour it into sealable containers. PHOTOS BY DANA BENNER
A commercial maple-sugaring facility looks something like this inside.