Lets get something clear upfront! I’m not talking about that high fructose pancake poison with its fake color and artificial flavors. I’m talking about that from the tree to the vanilla ice cream Maine maple goodness. The process is simple; drill, drip, collect, and boil. The total cost to make your family and friends a year’s supply of sticky sweet goodness is almost free, unless you’re figuring time into the equation. Here’s how you do it.
Step 1: Find your maple trees in the fall. Any maple will do. Don’t get caught up with subspecies, they all hold sap. Bigger trees are better. Walk around your property in the peak of fall foliage with a can of spray paint and put a mark on the trees you want to tap. How do you know it’s a maple? If you don’t know what a maple leaf looks like drive south and turn in your Maine driver’s license at the York toll booth, never come back. Don’t drive to Canada, they’re a big fan of maple.
Step 2: in November start saving your jugs, whatever you can get your hands on. Milk jugs, tea jugs, big, small, round, or tall love them all when it comes to jugs. Wash them out, and put them in storage somewhere by the lawn furniture, you won’t be needing that until you’re done with the jugs. Go online and order some taps. The matriarch of “Planting Roots Farm” has got us up to 125 taps now, we started with 24, it’s an addiction. We also got some plastic tubing, the price was minimal. Probably a good thing I didn’t have her search for jugs online. The internet can be a dangerous place.
Step 3: Watch the weather. Once again, if you’re a Mainer you’re watching it every night at 6 o’clock anyway. If you’re not, you’re probably one of those folks that run to the supermarket and buy up all the bread and milk when you see a few flakes. When it gets to late February start looking for a string of three or four days of below freezing nights and warm days in the 40’s, that’s when you got to tap em! Load up your jugs and taps, cordless drill with a good bit, (make sure it’s charged, lesson learned.) Then trip up over the snowbank to your sugar dispensers. Drill at an upward angle, tap in the tap until it’s solid, hang your bucket/jug on there somehow and wait… and wait… and wait. You’ll finally get a drip and you’re sappin, or as the more sophisticated folks say, sugaring.
Step 4: Collecting the sap and boiling it down is probably the most fun at the beginning, and most mind numbing by the end. You need an evaporator. I made my first one out of an old filing cabinet and a pan from Goodwill. That worked fine for 25 taps. I’ve since upgraded to a 55 gallon drum on blocks and surrounded by cinderblocks. This year I even used my limited “building skills” to somehow punch a hole in my shed wall and run a stove pipe outside. Now we’re sapping inside! I came across a 55 gallon plastic drum with a spigot on the bottom to store the sap waiting to boil. I also bought two 40 gallon trash cans at Lowes for 12 bucks each.
You’re also going to need wood, lots of it. I get most of my wood from pallets. Everyone that owns a business that takes deliveries has them and nobody wants them. Drive around and when you see stack of pallets go in and ask, or if they’re stacked by the dumpster assume they’re trash and just load them up. I’ve never been stopped by the pallet police.
The key to boiling is getting as much sap going at a time. It takes like 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup.When boiling the sap you need 3 things: Sap, firewood, and beer. The rest of the things are just nice to have, those are must haves. Just keep it boiling! I use three pans, one as a warmer, and two to boil. As the boiling pans get low I add from the warming pan. I then replace the sap in the warming pan with cold sap from the bucket. Once I have about 2 gallons or so left on the boil, assuming I started with about 50 gallons, I test it. I have fancy hydrometer that a friend of mine bought me, but the bottom line is if it looks like syrup you need to start thinking about taking it off. If you’ve run out of beer don’t even think about it, take it off, funs over. Run it through a strainer, cheese cloth is great. If anyone still wears panty hose I hear they work too. (Note: this is a joke.) Then take it inside and boil it down on the stove until it measures 69brx on the hydrometer, or looks like syrup to you. The other option is to put it in the refrigerator and finish it another day when your not so tired and tipsy. Don’t boil drunk, it’s a good way to loose your eyelashes and eyebrows. In all seriousness, the hydrometer is the way to go. It guarantees that you have the right amount of sugar content for legitimate syrup and a longer shelf life.
Once your syrup is boiled and still hot, strain it one more time and jar it up. Use whatever you want for a jar. We use Mason jars. We plan give most of our maple magic away as gifts. Make some pancakes and enjoy.What you made came from your land and your hard work provided it.
You can probably go online and find much better instructions on how to make syrup. Just don’t search for jugs.
Get outside – Jim