Maple Tapping Directions:
- A portable drill or hand drill, with a 7/16-inch drill bit, to drill your tap-holes
- Buckets are required for catching sap (2-4L in size)
- Metal tree taps (we bought ours on eBay for 25 cents each). Don’t use plastic taps – the high winds here will blow them right out of the trees!
- A hammer is necessary to drive the taps in
- You can also use a metal slug (called a spile driver) to drive the taps in easier and without the risk of bending them – although as long as you are careful this is not necessary
- For boiling down the sap you will need a candy thermometer (available at bulk barn, etc)
- A large stock pot
- Jam jars or fancy bottles for storing
- You will also need felt for filtering your syrup
Installing the Taps
Drill your tap holes and install your taps in late February. There is no specific date, it is temperature related. As soon as there are two days in a row that are above freezing, it’s time. This year our install date was Feb 22.
To install your taps, drill into the tree an inch and a half (4cm or so), on about a 20 degree upward angle, so the sap can flow downwards out the spout. You’ll notice the taphole become wet, clear out the wood shavings from the centre of the hole and hammer tap in. If you are tapping a tree you tapped last year, locate the new tap hole 6 inches away from last year’s tap hole.
Contrary to what you might expect when you think about tree sap as being amber and sticky, maple sap is a clear liquid that is basically almost entirely water. It flows from the roots of the tree to the branches of the tree, in order for the tree to grow leaf buds in the Spring. The flow can literally gush out of the trees like a dripping faucet, or it can drip very slowly – this depends on a number of factors, which are (in order of relative importance): temperature, hours/intensity of sunlight, air pressure, water pressure (if by a river/stream), and wind pressure. The primary factor that determines whether sap flows or not on any given day is whether it is above freezing or not – below freezing nights and warm temperatures during the day mean a heavy sap flow. Sap is good to use for syrupmaking up until the buds are about to open – bad sap has fermented slightly and is cloudy and whitish looking. When you see cloudy sap, its time to pull your taps.
Processing the Syrup
- Maple sap is almost entirely water (96%!), along with nutrient minerals such as zinc, iron, calcium, manganese, potassium and magnesium, and 2-3% sugar. Maple sap on its own is slightly sweet, but otherwise watery, it’s quite delicious on a warm sunny day in March. Native North Americans, and early European settlers, drew maple sap directly from the trees in the early Spring as a subsistence food, as it offered key vitamins missing in a winter diet. Maple syrup is what remains after you boil off a majority of the water (the vitamins all remain, unlike Aunt Jemima, which is simply coloured, salted sugar syrup).
- So, to get syrup, 90% or more of what you collect has to go up in steam. This involves a lot of boiling down, and the traditional thing to do is to do it outside, with a woodfire. Being urbanites, we boil ours down on the stove. Be warned! This creates a lot (a lot!) of steam, so you’ll need a fan and an open window, and probably a rag to wipe up any condensation. Overall, this is a manageable problem.
- Processing the syrup can be done once a week, or even twice a week during the peak of the flow season. Save up your accumulated sapflow in a large food grade barrel/ cooler/ tank, in the fridge or somewhere shady outside, until you’re ready to boil down. Raw sap is a little bit like fruit juice – it’ll spoil if it’s left too long or if it gets too warm for too long, but since it’s quite cold out still you can leave your sap outside, in a place away from the sun.
- Fill up a large stockpot with clear sap, and get it boiling. Keep adding sap to the pot as the water evaporates. The boiling will reduce any impurities in the sap as well as leaving calcium deposits. Skim the foam off the top every so often. The boil down process typically takes a few hours, but in the early stages the pot can be left unattended for 20-30 minutes at a time while you putter about. As you boil your maple sap it will gradually colour, becoming amber as the water evaporates off and the sugar content concentrates and carmelizes.
- When the temperature rises to 101°C, it is time to stay close to your pot, the temperature climbs faster towards the end of the boildown and you do NOT want to have to clean hardened sap off your stovetop! The correct temperature for reducing to maple syrup is a consistent 104°C on a candy thermometer, although this can be adjusted by a degree either side once you have made maple syrup and have decided to try for thicker, or thinner, syrup. Filter the syrup through a felt sleeve (preferably, but a coffee filter would work too), and bottle. These temperatures are set for sea level, if you are significantly above sea level you may wish to determine the boiling point of water at your altitude before processing, since water boils at a different temperature as altitude increases.
- Once the syrup has reached 104 degrees and has been filtered, it simply needs to be brought back to a boil in order to sterilize the syrup for bottling. Unlike before, with the water mostly evaporated, the second boil takes mere minutes. Bottled syrup is shelf stable and can be stored in the same fashion as jams – refrigerate after opening. However there is one key difference – in the unlikely event that your syrup is left out in the open and develops mold, you can simply scrape off the mold, bring the syrup back up to 104°, and rebottle...good as new! If you’re anything like us, though, a bottle never lasts long enough to go bad.
- Home processing is not as fine as commercial processing, and it is very normal to see some slight sediment along the bottom of your maple syrup a few months later – this is ‘sugar sand’, which is a mixture of crystallized sugar and calcium deposits – it is sweet tasting but a bit gritty.
- If your syrup is boiled too thick, or sits for too long, large crystalline sugar cubes may form on the bottom of the bottle – once the bottle is done, these maple sugar cubes can be removed, and make a divine addition to a range of baked goods (or sprinkled on top of salmon, for instance).
- At the beginning of the maple syrup season you will notice your finished product will be light gold (or lighter) in color. The more clear your syrup, the earlier in season it was processed, and the higher the grade. As the season goes on the syrup turns darker amber. Professional syrup bottlers use a four-point colour chart, and colour determines grade, with clear and light coloured syrup being preferred. Compared to making syrup on the mainland, you can expect a LOT of very light coloured syrup from our trees. Despite our expecting ‘dark amber’ towards the end of our runs as we had read, we have yet to see any of our syrup turn this dark. All of the syrup is equally delicious, but you may find that lighter and darker syrups have their appropriate uses, for example lighter syrup, being a bit more delicate, goes better with granola and yogurt, from experience.
- Read more at www.foodfirstnl.ca