Last week, Dan and I tapped some of the maple trees around our place. With a sharp, 7/16" bit, we drilled more than two inches into each tree, about two feet above the ground. When the wood of the tree curled out behind the drill bit, it was very wet. As soon as we hammered the spout gently into the hole, the sap started to drip out. Drip, drip, drip... We had intercepted a small bit of the flow of clear, slightly sweet sap carrying stored sugars up from the roots to swell the buds.
This year we have 10 taps in eight trees. Last year we had just seven. In Vermont, you're considered a professional if you have a hundred taps. There are good reasons, however, for tapping just a few trees.
Humans in this part of the world have taken advantage of the special sweetness of maple sap for thousands of years. Like so many of the activities which have sustained life in this region, tapping maple trees and making syrup connect us directly to the weather, to other living things and to the way this ecosystem works. We have learned to identify maple trees and the sugar maples among them. Once the buckets are hung, we need to visit them once or twice a day to see how they're doing and to collect the sap. Weather conditions and temperature take on an added importance. What a great time of year to go into the woods! There are so many wonderful changes.
The sap starts flowing around the middle of February as the days grow longer. It flows best on warm days, after below-freezing nights and can really slow down following balmy nights like we had last week. Sap flow can continue well into March, or it can end abruptly with an early, extended warm spell. As the leaves begin to unfold, the sap takes on a bad taste. When it comes to collecting sap, Mother Nature is the boss. It can only be done on her schedule, which is, of course, different every year.
The sugar in the sap is very dilute. It takes about 40 gallons to make one gallon of syrup. The season's sap from one average tap boils down to about a quart of syrup. Traditionally boiling down is done over a wood fire. It takes about one cord of wood to produce 25 gallons, which is one reason why maple syrup is so expensive. On a small scale, your wood stove or even the kitchen range can be used.
Only healthy maple trees should be tapped. Sugar maples are the best sap producers for quantity and taste, but red and even Norway maples can be tapped for syrup. A tree should be at least a foot in diameter before being tapped, and at least 20 inches before two taps are used. A huge, three-foot diameter tree could have three or four taps, the maximum. With the added stresses on trees today, it seems wise to give trees a rest every other year.
The sun will warm the south and east sides of the tree first, so that is where taps are placed. Taps on the north side are slower to start, but may flow a few days longer.
Once the hole is drilled, the metal spout seals the outside of the hole, holds a bucket and guides the sap into it. The manufactured metal spouts we're using cost just over a dollar at the feed store. When I collected maple sap several decades ago, I used elderberry stems with the center pushed out.
A good day's flow can be over two gallons per tap. We use recycled five-gallon plastic buckets, with a hole drilled just under the rim to fit the hook on the spouts. One source recommends recycled gallon milk or water jugs with holes in the handle for the hook and the spout. Those would have to be emptied at least twice on a good day.
We strain the sap into big stainless steel pots for boiling on a fire outside. With a roaring fire and a rolling boil, the water steams away. Once the sap has been reduced to about 10 percent of the original volume, it's a good idea to move into the kitchen for more controlled boiling as it finishes.
Early last week, Dan boiled down the first several gallons of sap overnight in the kitchen and made us delicious whole-grain pancakes the next morning. We covered them with this season's first maple syrup, the best we'd ever tasted.
If you can't make some yourself, visit one of the area's sugar houses this season to experience the taste of fresh, local maple syrup.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
This page and its contents are copyright © 1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.