We have a little experience tapping maple trees. I am no expert, but I’m happy to show you how we do it.
It’s really fun.
Here’s some additional posts on the subject:
It’s amazing how much, “sap” comes flooding out of the Maple trees. Really, it’s remarkable. In the hunger games when they stick the “spile” into the tree and a liquid comes flowing out – it’s not made up. It’s for real. I’m convinced that those must have been maple trees.
- If you were in the woods
- without water
- and you had a spile
- and it was winter/ early spring
- and you found a maple tree
- you would not dehydrate.
- In fact, you could probably water a village.
Lots of watery sap flows from Maple trees. Very cool.
And you can make that thin, watery sap into syrup…
Many folks call it, “Maple Sugar’in”
Maple Sugar’in is a fun activity on the homestead when the garden is asleep, the outdoor chores are being put off til spring and it’s too cold to do anything else.
To make it even more appealing, Maple Sugar’in is simple and (I think) fun.
There’s only 3 steps:
- Collect sap
- Boil sap
- Put sap in jar
That’s it! There is nothing complicated or technical about Maple Sugar’in. So EASY.
Notice I didn’t say that it was FAST – because it’s not.
Maple Sugar’in takes time.
Here’s how to do it:
#1 Tap the [Right] Trees
Let’s start with gathering sap. It is imperative that you tap the correct trees. If you tap an elm tree you won’t get any maple sap. Aren’t you glad I’m here to help you with these things.
We marked all our Maple trees with “M’s” in the fall when we could properly identify the trees. This makes it easy in February to find Maple trees – they have “M’s” on them.
Drill a hole in the tree 2 1/2 inches deep with whatever diameter needed for your spile. Be sure you put a slight angle on the hole so that the spile is angled down helping the sap run into the bucket.
Next, shove the spile into the hole. We used a rubber mallet to bang it securely into place. Attach the hook over the spile and hang the bucket. This entire set-up came in a tree-tapping kit. Easy.
Last, put the lid on. Done. The lid will prevent rain, leaves, and other forest’y debris from ending up in your collection bucket.
#2 Tap them at the Right Time
Once winter arrives it can be difficult to determine which trees should have spouts. To make it easy to identify the maple trees, my husband marked them last fall when they were covered in bright red maple leaves.
When the days begin to get warmer and the nights are still dropping below freezing, this is when the sap really begins to run. Here in Kentucky, this usually starts in February. The average tree tapping season is about 3 weeks long.
Once you know the temperatures are right, it is time to venture out into the woods to find the marked maple trees. Drill a hole in the tree 2 1/2 inches deep for your spile. Be sure you put a slight angle on the hole so that the spile is angled down helping the sap run into the bucket.
Next, shove the spile into the hole. We used a rubber mallet to bang it securely into place. Once your spile is mounted into the tree you simple hang the bucket on and attach the lid. The lid will prevent rain, leaves, and other forest’y debris from ending up in your collection bucket. Easy.
#3 Tap them at the Right Age
Tapping older trees will provide more sap than younger trees. I am no arborist & don’t know how to determine the age of trees. Sorry. I’m not gonna be much help here. We tried to tap the trees with larger trunks (makes sense that they are probably more mature).
If you are wondering where all my “tree-tapping knowledge” comes from – the tree tapping kits we bought (several years ago) came with books. Books can be helpful.
#4 Collect Lots of Sap
While you are in your house busy doing other wintery things, your sap-collecting set-up will be gathering gallons of sap for you.
Be sure to check your collection buckets daily (or every other day) and empty them (if needed). When the sap starts to flow it is amazing how quickly the buckets will fill.
If you tapped the right trees at the right time of year you will do a happy dance when you peek inside. If you look close you can see it in there – it looks like water. Yay Sap!
Pour the maple sap into a larger bucket for transporting back to the house for processing. We used a (food grade) 5 gallon bucket. After you collect all the maple sap, hang the collection buckets back on the trees so they can gather more sap for you.
Be sure to strain your maple sap. We do this as soon as we get back to the house. There will probably be a few flies and ants trying to get a free lunch from your sap. Unless you want to have maple-ant-syrup you’ll want to filter it. You can use cheesecloth, a colander and a paper towel, or a milk filter for filtering. I have a few thousand milk filters so we used those.
I checked the trees for sap every day or two. When the buckets hanging on the trees were mostly full, I brought the sap to the house. There I strained the maple sap into storage containers and placed it in the refrigerators (we have a couple). If the temperatures at your place are cold enough, refrigeration isn’t necessary. I was being cautious so it wouldn’t spoil. At the end of the week I had gallons and gallons of maple sap (and no refrigerator space).
#5 Boil it to Death
Ok, so you’re not really going to kill it, but you are going to boil it forever and ever and ever…. until it is thick and golden and perfect for your pancakes.
It takes 40 gallons of maple sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup.
Yup, it takes A LOT of sap to make a tiny bit of syrup. When the sap runs out of the tree it is 98% water. In order to turn that water into a thick syrup you can pour on your pancakes, you’ll need to boil it and boil it and boil it and boil it.
Next comes the fun part. Time to build a fire!!
You are going to need a big pot over a fire. This can be accomplished many ways. We went with the “use-whatever-you-got” system. We used a turkey fryer sitting on a cast iron stand. There are several reasons why this is a bad idea. Just trust me, you’ll need a pot that has a nice thick bottom that can sit over a fire for….. all day. A giant, heavy (steel bottom or otherwise) pot will do.
Keep piling on the wood until you get things boiling in the pot. We attached a thermometer to the side of the pot to monitor the temperature of the sap. The goal is boiling – or 212 degrees.
Keeping your pot boiling (or at 212 degrees) is pretty easy. As long as our sap was boiling the temp stayed pinned at 212. If it stops boiling add some more logs on the fire.
Skim off the scum as it rises to the top.
As the liquid boils down continue to add more sap to the pot until you have added all your sap.
It doesn’t matter if you are processing 5 gallons or 20 gallons of sap; the process is the same. You continue adding sap to the pot as it cooks down until all of it is in the pot.
As the sap cooks down it will begin to turn a golden color. We kept ours boiling outside until there was only 2 inches of sap in the bottom of the pot.
Then we moved things indoors. Because our sap boiled outside, over a fire, all day, some debris from the fire did end up on our sap – so I strained it before re-heating it on the stovetop.
After it’s on the stove, insert a candy thermometer and continue boiling.
It will boil, and boil, and boil. One thing I found interesting was that during this entire boiling marathon we never once stirred the sap. Just boil it.
How to know when your sap is syrup:
- The syrup will be a golden color (the longer you boil it, the darker the color)
- The syrup “sheets” off the back of a spoon
This is a lot like jelly making. You just keep sticking that spoon in the syrup and when the syrup sticks on the back of the spoon instead of running off like water – you’re done!
Strain again into a hot, sterile mason jar. Top with lid & stick it in the refrigerator.
All that’s left to do is make pancakes.
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