Two weeks ago, Dan and I tapped some of the maple trees around our place. With a sharp, 7/16" bit, we drilled just over 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 flowing. Drip, drip, drip... We had intercepted a small bit of the clear, slightly sweet sap carrying stored sugars up from the roots to swell the buds.
This year we have a dozen taps in as many trees. Last year we had ten taps in eight trees. In Vermont, you're considered a professional if you have one 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 stops following balmy nights like we had last week. Sap flow can stop and start well into March, or it can end abruptly with an early, extended warm spell. As the leaves of the trees 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.
Maple sap is a very dilute sugar solution. It takes about 40 gallons to make one gallon of syrup. The season's sap from an average tap boils down to about one quart of syrup. Traditionally, boiling down is done over a wood fire. It takes about a 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 usually produce the best and the most sap, but we also tap our red maples. I even helped high school students make delicious syrup from Norway maples along a Hamden street. Any tree should be at least one foot in diameter before being tapped, and at least 20 inches before two taps are used. With the added stresses on trees today, it seems wise to give them a rest every other year.
The sun warms the south and east sides of the tree first, so that is where the tap goes. Taps placed on the north side are slower to start, but may flow a few days longer.
Once drilled, the hole is filled with a spout which also holds a bucket and guides the sap into it. The manufactured metal spouts we bought at the feed store are inexpensive and last for years. When I collected maple sap several decades ago, I used elderberry stems with the center pushed out, a technique borrowed from this region's Native Americans.
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. The students used recycled gallon cider jugs with holes in the handle for the hook and the spout. These have to be emptied at least twice on a good day.
We strain the sap into a stainless steel container for boiling on a fire outside. The larger the surface area, the better. With a roaring fire and a rolling boil, the water steams away. Once the sap has been reduced to about 10% of the original volume, it's a good idea to move into the kitchen for more controlled boiling as it finishes.
Earlier this week, we boiled down 40 gallons of our sap overnight outside. We're looking forward to covering delicious whole-grain pancakes with this season's first maple syrup.
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. The Department of Agriculture in Hartford can provide a listing of Connecticut producers.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
This page and its contents are copyright © 1998 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.