March 25, 2008 at 5:41 am
As I promised, here is the first of several installments on maple syrup making. This is the best time of the year for me because I know that spring is just around the corner. And, it’s fun to be outside as a family in the woods. I have great memories of the kids taking turns scraping the last of the sticky syrup out of the pan. They don’t waste a thing.
How do you get started making maple syrup? First and most obviously, you have to find a sugar maple tree. Other maples like silver and red maples can be tapped but they produce a slightly different tasting syrup. All maples have opposite branching, meaning the branches and twigs come out directly across from each other. Sugar maples also have a specific leaf shape (think Canadian flag) and have a distinctive bark and bud shape.
So how do you tell it’s the right time to tap? There are lots of “folk” methods of telling like when the skunk cabbage comes up or when the lake ice turns black. The best way to know is by looking at a thermometer. When the temperatures are around and just above 32 degrees F, you can tap your maples. If the temperature is lower, the wood is frozen and it will crack a bit making a loose tap hole. If you wait until the temperature is higher, the sap run slows down and the sap becomes bitter and cloudy.
Once you’ve found sugar maples, measure the diameter of the tree. Use only trees that are over 10 inches in diameter (12 preferred – a 12 inch tree has a circumference of about 37 inches). To tap a maple tree you will need a drill bit (7/16ths to 1/2 inch), a spile, a hammer, and a bucket.
Using a bit and brace, drill a hole above a large root, about 3 feet off the ground. Make the hole about 1 1/2 inch deep and angle it downward slightly. As the hole is drilled, the bit is reversed from time to time to clear the hole of fras (little shavings). Watch for a change in the fras from dry to wet. If the sap is running you will see the liquid begin to run down the tree trunk.
Next the spile is gently tapped into the hole using a hammer. Once the spile is correctly in place you should see sap dripping from the spile. We use a variety of spiles. The newest spiles we have are plastic and they connect to tubing which can go into a bucket. While that sap is dripping it’s time for a taste. Yum, this is very cold, lightly sweetened water straight from the tree. We’ve also heated this and made tea in the waterery, slightly sweet first sap.
The last thing we do is connect the spile to the tubing and put them through the lid of a bucket. We also use the “old fashioned” spiles and buckets that hang from them. I still like these buckets because I love the lovely pinging noise that’s made as the first sap drips into the empty buckets.
So far this year, we’ve collected about 160 gallons of sap making 4 gallons of syrup. Tomorrow I’ll share the process of boiling and filtering the syrup.
What’s your favorite way to have maple syrup?