Now, being a Californian by birth, I had no real knowledge of where real maple syrup came from. Heck, I didn't even try it until I moved 3000 miles east *gasp*! Hubby and I are in our third year now and we finally produced enough for our own household for a year. I'm no expert, by any means, but this is what we do to make our own maple syrup on a budget.
There are some tried and true "rules" to tapping your maple trees. You don't tap trees that are under 10 inches diameter at 4 feet above the ground so the tree can get enough for itself. Don't tap too close to previous taps. Don't put too many taps in one tree, etc. It must be above freezing during the day and below at night for the sap to run. We follow all of these rules and have discovered a couple of tips of our own. We want these trees to produce sap for years to come!
In our little neck of the woods, we've also discovered that different size trees produce differently. We have two very large, very old silver maples. They take a bit longer to get going in the morning, but when the sun goes down, they still drip for a few hours. The smaller trees only produce during daylight. Also, for all sizes, the sap runs much better when the sun actually hits the trunk of the tree to warm it up. On cold, rainy days we don't get a whole lot.
Our equipment consists of the following, but by no means is inclusive, and many substitutions can be made.
*17 plastic maple taps with either two or four feet of tubing attached
*A drill bit and drill for the tree and another bit the size of the tubing
*Hammer or rubber mallet
*A bunch of empty one-gallon jugs from the distilled water that I use in my soap making Reduce, recycle, re-use! The jugs have one more purpose before they go in the recycle bin. *A one-gallon food-safe bucket for collecting
*An inexpensive induction burner
*Two large stainless steel pots. We just use the pots from our kitchen that we already have.
*Canning Jars with lids and rings
*Clean flour cloth dish towel for straining
* A couple of measuring cups
The only things we bought just for the tapping is the taps and tubing. Everything else was already on hand. The taps and tubes came from Amazon and were about $28 for each set of 10. Just search taps and tubing. There are tons of choices.
So why did we use gallon jugs instead of the traditional metal buckets? Those things are pricey! About $30 per set. At 14 taps this year, well...may as well go just buy syrup! In addition, the jugs give a second life to something before it goes away to be recycled, and I empty lots of distilled water jugs making soap all year. Reduce, Recycle, Reuse! They also keep a better seal on the sap collection. No critters going for a swim. Far less dust and debris. I actually noticed people stop on the road to check out our taps this year and had several make comments that it was a good idea! Kind of gratifying for being a newbie.
For someone looking to live a more self-reliant lifestyle, maple is a pretty good entry point. It is the very first 'crop' of the year if you don't have a greenhouse or high tunnel. It produces a very sweet treat that almost everyone loves. It's relatively inexpensive - though you can make it rather expensive should you choose. It's pretty passive as far as labor output. It's a good money saver once you have your equipment. It gets you outside enjoying the very first signs of spring after a long, cold winter. It's also only sugaring season for 3-5 weeks usually, so it's not a huge time commitment.
Our first year, we only had 3 taps and 3 tiny little galvanized buckets. It was experiment year. Time to learn and see if it's something we like before investing any real money. The tiny kit was only about $15. Well, we discovered very soon that those little tiny buckets were laughable! Who knows how much sap we lost every day when we came home to our 1-pint buckets overflowing? But we collected as often as possible and got a few jars worth. We only tapped one tree that year. It's a massive old silver maple that is easily over 3 feet diameter - probably closer to 4 feet. It branches off into several main trunks at about 4-5 feet up. So we put taps in three of them.
We really liked making the maple, so we invested in our first set of ten taps with 4' plastic tubing to prepare for our second year of sugaring. At the end of summer/ early fall, we made it a point to walk around our property and mark the maples with string. This may sound silly - you know that the tree on your front lawn is a maple. But we have 2.5 acres of woods behind our house. Can you identify the maples in the middle of winter with no leaves on the trees, in a foot of snow when it's below freezing outside? I certainly couldn't, coming from a climate that is mostly conifers.
The best maples for tapping are sugar maples. They have about 3% sugar in their sap. What does that mean? It means that for every 40 gallons of sap you collect you will get about 1 gallon of syrup. We don't have any sugar maples. We have silver maples and red maples. They are still fine to make maple from, but at 2% (ish) sugar, it takes a little more sap. Work with what you have!
The process is pretty simple. Drill the tree (according to where you've tapped before, how large the tree is, etc.). Gently hammer in the tap with a tube attached. The plastic taps we're using are breakable if you manhandle them. We have 17 left. Attach the end of your tube to some sort of collection device, plastic bucket, water jug, galvanized bucket, hanging bag, or whatever you have. Just make sure it's food safe!
Then just go out and walk your taps and collect sap. I do this about six times a day when I'm home, basically because I get excited. But it also keeps the pot boiling all day so we don't get overwhelmed. On a good day, we can get about 10 gallons of sap. our biggest pot only holds a gallon and a half. So from 7 am to 7 pm for about a month we try to keep it going. We about reached our limit this year with our current equipment.
If you have the capability, sap should definitely be boiled outside. All those hours of boiling sugar water will make your kitchen very soggy and humid if you don't have a good vent and it will make things rather sticky. We use an induction cooktop on the back porch. This year, we also had to use the burner on our grill with a second pot, and we had to do some boiling on the stove in the house. We found that if we only boiled down fresh sap that isn't concentrated enough to start turning brown yet that it was fine to do in the house.
Basically, you just keep adding in sap and boiling until your syrup reaches the right consistency. This actually is a science, and a hydrometer is on our 'upgrade for next year' list. But this year, and previous years, we winged it. There is a method for testing that involves how it boils up, one for how it sluices off a spoon, and probably others. I recommend that you look up on Youtube if you plan on using these methods. I am definitely not an expert on explaining them!
We did 3 successful boils this year, plus one unintentional black charred mess on the bottom of our good All-Clad pot. It got too close to done and we were distracted. It finally took a wire brush on a drill to save the pot. We probably lost about 3 jars of syrup. Lesson learned. The last pot we literally stood over for forty-five minutes waiting for the right boil look!
We bring the whole pot inside at this point. It definitely was easier making this a two-person job. Hubby holds the double-folded flower cloth over one measuring cup while I dip the second in the hot sap and pour it through to filter out any debris. When his cup is full, he moves the filter cloth and I fill the clean, hot canning jars. Put lids and rings on and wait for that lovely *pop* that canners know so well. If they don't seal from just their own heat we either process them in a water bath canner or just use that jar first, stored in the fridge. Sorry, no pictures of this! It's a very hot process and moves very quickly.
So how did we do this year? Well, we got 14 jars! More than one per month, so we're set for an entire year! Just shy of 11 pints. See the color difference? The light gold was from our first boil. It's early season maple and most people use it for dressings, sauces, and the like. The darker color sap is from the later two boils and is closer to what you buy at the store. We will be using most of this for breakfast, regardless of color. It's ALL yummy!
Do you make your own maple syrup? We'd love any tips and tricks! We know we need to upgrade a little for size. We found another giant maple up behind the garage! We're also investing in a hydrometer before fall this year. Hard cider season is coming, so it's a dual-use tool! What else would you do?
Do you like the idea of being self-sufficient? Come along with us while we turn our raw property into a small farm! This year we have a 40x60 garden space in the works and are planning for half a dozen chickens!