Tips for Making Maple Syrup
Identify a sugar maple tree (Acer saccharum)
Identifying trees in the winter and spring (before leaf-out) can be tricky for many people. When looking for a sugar maple tree, try to identify the following:
- The bark is irregular in pattern.
- Look for whitewash lichen, a grayish-whitish coating, growing on the bark.
- Some trees have a burnt looking appearance. This is a black mold that grows on maple sap that has leaked from holes and cracks in the tree.
- Sugar maples have sharp-pointed, chocolate brown buds as compared to red maple buds that are larger, rounder and reddish in color.
- Most tree species are alternate branched, but ALL maples (and a few others) have opposite branching in which side branches growing across from each other rather than alternating along the stem.
- Note that you can tap other maple trees (including red, silver, and boxelder), but the sugar content in the sap of other maples is significantly lower than that of a sugar maple so you’ll need a lot more sap to make your syrup.
Tapping the tree
Tapping sugar maples is as easy as it sounds. Follow these tips for the greatest success.
- Make sure your sugar maple tree is big enough to tap. Standard practice is to put one tap in a tree with a minimum 12 inch diameter and two taps in a tree with a minimum 18-inch diameter. At Saint John’s we rarely, if ever, put three taps in a tree during the season.
- You can place taps most anywhere along the trunk of the tree. Think about height for ease of collecting (paying attention to depth of snow and future spring melting); 2-4 feet off the ground is about right. Only drill in healthy wood; avoid decaying or discolored spots and depressions or valleys in the bark. If there are previous tap holes, drill to the right and up about four inches to avoid non-conductive wood (shavings from a “good” or conductive hole should be white).
- Using either a 7/16th or 5/16th bit (depending on the size of your spile), drill at a slight upward angle 1.5-2 inches deep.
- Tap the spile into the hole (note we are tree tapping, not pounding, whacking or hammering!). Tapping too hard will split the wood, too soft and the spile may fall out. The spile should be secure when you grab it and give it a push.
- Hang your bucket or bag on the spile, ensuring that the spout is dripping into the container. Put a lid on buckets to help keep out debris and spring rain.
- Sap generally begins to run when the daytime temperatures are above freezing and nighttime temperatures are below freezing. In our region that is typically between mid-March to mid-April, although we’ve had sap runs as early as mid-February and into late May.
- In most cases it is best to collect the sap within a day or so and cook it soon after to prevent spoilage. Filter the sap through a cloth to remove larger bits of debris such as pieces of bark, twigs, or insects.
Sugar maple sap is on average about 2% sugar. The process of cooking the sap is to evaporate a large amount of water to achieve 66% sugar to be legally called maple syrup.
- Depending on the sugar content of your sap (which can vary from year to year, week to week and tree to tree), it takes about 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup.
- The larger the surface area of your pan, the more quickly you can evaporate all the water (be prepared for the large amount of steam during evaporation, particularly if you are cooking indoors).
- Bring the sap to a boil and continually add sap as it boils down. Leave room at the top of your pan for the sap to roll and foam as it boils. Keep at least 1.5 inches of liquid in the pan at all times to avoid scorching.
- Syrup can go from finished to burnt quickly. You can use a hydrometer to regularly check the sugar content of your syrup as it gets close to 66% sugar. Or you can monitor the boiling point with a thermometer. Finished maple syrup boils at approximately 7 degrees F above the boiling point of water. The boiling point of water is around 212 degrees F, depending on altitude and weather. You can use a second thermometer to measure the boiling point of a pot of vigorously boiling water, or you can measure the temperature of your sap at the very beginning of its boil (since at that point it is still mostly water).
- Filter the finished syrup to remove sugar sand (a natural precipitate formed in the cooking process).
- Bottle while still hot in sterile containers to seal for storage. Refrigerate after opening (or if bottled while cooler than 185 degrees F).