Old-fashioned lidded buckets pause for a photo-shoot before heading out into our sugarwoods for their annual stay.
You've decided to make maple syrup this year and you've determined that it's time to tap. Great!
As long as you've identified your maple trees (and any maple will do as long as it is at least 12 inches in diameter) all you need to do is get a hold of some simple tools and equipment, read these instructions, maybe watch our tapping video, and you are ready to go!
FIrst, you need a drill with a 7/16" or 5/16" bit. You can use a cordless power drill or a hand drill - also called a brace. The power drill has the advantage of being a lot faster, whereas the brace is more . . . romantic. . . . if you're into that sort of thing. The brace also has no carbon footprint! (For those of us not into romance.)
A regular bit will do, or you can invest in a "tapping bit," of either size. Our customers report that tapping bits are easier to use and make a nice, clean hole, but we've never used one. Tapping bits for cordless drills are widely available. Choose the bit size that matches the spiles you are going to use (see below).
Second, you need 7/16" or 5/16" spiles - also called "taps." Spiles are the spouts you hammer into the tree to direct the sap from the tree to the bucket or other sap-collection container of your choice.
New spiles are widely available in both sizes and come in metal and plastic. If you are in possession of used or even antique spiles, or looking for some (again with the romance!), chances are they are going to be of the larger size.
Every sugarmaker has an opinion about what size tap is best and whether to use plastic or metal spiles. Do research if you enjoy it, but the important thing is to just get started, so don't feel like you have to sweat the small stuff, here. This is supposed to be fun! Find some taps that are in your price range, and go for it!
You will need one spile per every tap you are going to make. A tree that is from 12 to 18 inches in diameter can support one tap. Trees larger than 18 inches in diameter can take two taps. Putting more than two taps in a tree is not recommended.
Third, you will need a hammer for tapping the spile into the tree after the hole is drilled.
And finally, you need lidded buckets or other food-safe containers such as clean plastic milk jugs attached to the spile with rope or wire, or food-safe plastic bags (widely available).
It is important to note that the old galvanized buckets may contain lead, and it is possible for lead to leach into your sap if sap is left in the bucket for long enough and temperatures are high enough. (Our family uses the old galvanized buckets and collects sap frequently.) New metal buckets are typically made of safer aluminum, there are plenty of plastic-bucket options, and there is even a bucket made of gray plastic on the market for those of you having a hard time weighing the factors of aesthetics, cost and function. (Brilliant!)
(If you'd like a head start on where to find stuff, check out our blogpost on that!)
Now that you have your stuff, you are going to proceed to your first tree and choose a height that is both convenient for the driller and collector. Choose a spot that is easy to drill at that moment, but also think about the current depth of the snow: is the collector going to have to reach over his or her head to collect the bucket when the snow melts?
Having settled on a height, inspect your tree. For best results, you should choose a place on the tree that is either below a big branch or above a big root, and definitely not near a knot or wound in the tree. Cardinal direction doesn't matter too much - every year you should tap at least 6" away from the prior year's tap anyway - but a southern tap will flow before a northern one, so do think about how you'd like to time your season. When you've chosen your spot, drill a hole of about 1 inch or so at a slight, upward angle and look for nice, light, creamy wood chips and sawdust coming out. If what you see is dark or dead, find another place on the tree to tap and try again.
When you have your hole, tap your spile in using your hammer, hang your bucket, and put on your lid. Move on to the rest of your sugarbush. Now it's time to wait for the sap to run!
Would you like to see it done? Here's a video featuring the inventor of the Sapling Evaporator tapping a tree in our sugarwoods.
The sap of the sugar maple runs when nighttime temperatures are freezing and daytime temperatures are not.
Finally! A question that's easy to answer. This is going to be a short blog post. Well . . .
Here are the basics. You aren't going to be able to collect sap from a maple tree until the sap starts running. Sap runs when nighttime temperatures are freezing and daytime temperatures are not. So when you tap is going to depend entirely on where you live - both in terms of geography and elevation - what the weather is doing that year, and thus when it is both cold enough and warm enough to create sap flow.
As you know, the climate is warming and weather patterns are changing, so the old rules-of-thumb are becoming less and less useful. For example, here in Central Vermont, Town Meeting Day (the first Tuesday in March) is when hill farmers would traditionally tap. For the last few decades, however, March has sometimes proved too late for us. These days, the professionals start early in the year, and us hobby farmers are likely to get ourselves out in the sugar woods by mid-February.
This year, some folks in Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia started tapping, collecting and even boiling during the week between Christmas and New Years! That's early by anybody's standards. By the end of January, however, the rest of the Southern Midwest and Mid-Atlantic - Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, North Carolina, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania - will likely have joined them. Southern New England and thereabouts - Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Southern New York and Connecticut - will follow. Like Vermont, in the Northern Midwest and in New England - Minnesota, Wisconsin, Northern New York, Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire, folks typically don't tap until at least mid-February or even March. And we've got customers at certain elevations in upstate New York and in Canada, for example, who may wait until April! Oy!
The easiest way to get acclimated, if you are just starting out, is to pay attention to what other sugar makers are doing in your area. The forums on mapletrader, which are broken down by state, are a great resource for this. Or you could ask your local professional sugar maker and make a friend and ally in the process! But if you see that sweet steam rising in the neighborhood, that's a sure sign that it's time to get a move on.
Most sugar makers we've spoken to say that once the new year has passed, you can't tap too early, even if the sap is weeks away from flowing. There are detractors, of course, who say that a tree will close a wound early if tapped to early, such that you may miss some late-season flow. If, like most of us, you are a subsistence sugar maker who doesn't like to sweat the small stuff much (and isn't worrying about the return on investment for fancy equipment) just consider the above and find yourself a suitable weekend when it's convenient to get out there and take pleasure in the annual rite.
If you've identified your maple trees, everything else you need to know in order to make maple syrup in your backyard is here in its shortest form.
Sugaring season is drawing close. You want to start this year but you aren't sure you have time to figure it out and get your operation in order! It's almost February!
Not to fear. Here is the shortest guide to backyard sugaring ever made. You can DO it!
Step 1: Get Equipped
As long as you've identified your maple trees (and any maple will do as long as it is at least 12 inches in diameter) all you need to do is get a hold of some simple tools and equipment and you're ready for your first boil. The list of stuff you need is short:
For more about this stuff and where to acquire it go here.
Step 2: Tap
It depends on where in maple country you live and what the weather is doing. Sap runs when nighttime temperatures are freezing and daytime temperatures are not. So, right now our customers in the Southern Midwest and Mid-Atlantic - Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey and Pennsylvania - report that they are already tapping and collecting. In the Northern Midwest and in New England, however, we typically don't tap until at least mid-February and sometimes not until March. And we've got customers at certain elevations in upstate New York, for example, who have to wait until April! So pay attention to what the weather is doing and what other sugar makers are doing in your area. A great resource for the latter are the forums on mapletrader, which are broken down by state. Or you could ask your local sugar maker and make a friend and ally in the process.
How do you tap?
Easy. Learn here.
Step 3: Collect Sap
Monitor your sap containers daily so that the sap does not overflow or get to warm. When your containers are full, or when the sap is exposed to warm temperatures or direct sunlight, collect from the tree and store in snowbanks in the shade, a cool garage, or other naturally refrigerated place in 5 gallon buckets or other large food-grade container. Sap will keep for a week or so at refrigerated temperatures. It is OK for sap to freeze. In fact, some of us throw out the ice chunks on the theory that it's just water. And it's OK for you to mix the sap from different maple trees together. It all tastes the same.
Step 4: Boil
When you have time to boil, boil! This is going to take a while, so either start as early as possible in the evening and know you aren't sleeping much that night, or, better yet, choose a day when you would be home anyway.
Exactly how this goes will depend on your arch. If you have a continuous-flow pan, like the Sapling Pan or the Seedling Pan, you will flood the pan with sap that you've strained through your cheesecloth, start your fire, and continuously pour sap into the entry point. And wait. You should be able to make 1 or 2 gallons of syrup in a 10-hour day with our products.
If you have a series of flat pans, you will flood all pans with strained sap, start your fire, and consolidate the boil into one pan as the levels in all pans reduce, leaving pan(s) open for new sap to be processed. And wait even longer.
If you have one flat pan, you will flood the pan with strained sap, start your fire, and occasionally fill the pan back up again with sap. And wait the longest of them all.
Regardless of your getup, you will measure the temperature (with thermometer) or sugar content (with hydrometer) of your boil at the exit point or final boiling pan, and pour-off/dump-out syrup when it measures 219 degrees F or 66 brix. OR you can also just dip a spoon or spatula into the boil, and observe how it behaves coming off the utensil and/or on to a cold plate. Syrup is said to "apron" off a spoon, and acts like syrup as it cools on your plate. Sap doesn't. It acts more like water in both scenarios.
Step 5: Filter and Store
Filter your syrup right away, pour immediately into food-safe containers, and invert the container briefly to sterilize the inside of the lid. If done quickly enough, this is all the canning process you need to keep syrup safely in a cool, dark place for two years! For more detail on safe canning, see here.
Need more help? Or prefer a guide you can hang onto in the woods? We recommend Maple Sugaring at Home, by Tap My Trees, available here. It's affordable, easy to use, and covers the basics in more detail.
Have fun and keep in touch!
On Teaspoon of Sugar, we write about maple sugaring, maple syrup, starting and running a small business, and living the sweet life here in beautiful, downtown Montpelier, Vermont.