The Art of Maple Su­gar­ing

Par­take in a time-hon­ored tra­di­tion us­ing age-old and mod­ern meth­ods

Modern Pioneer - - Contents - By Dana Benner

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.

Col­lec­tion Be­gins

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.

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