If your idea of maple syrup is the thick brown stuff that comes out of a plastic supermarket bottle, then clearly you’ve never enjoyed real maple syrup – the kind that comes from a sugar maple tree, not from corn syrup, molasses, and unpronounceable ingredients.
It’s a little bit late in the season to start this now, but over the weekend, a neighbor was granted permission to place taps on several of the sugar maple trees on the grounds. While I was intrigued with his method of collecting, it somehow just doesn’t look right to me. A little too ‘modern production’ ish, if you will.
Then again, the last time I tapped a maple tree was around 1980. I was living in a log house we had built (the first of its kind in the area), cooking on an antique kitchen woodstove (the only stove we had), and really living the country life.
Our tapping system was much less sophisticated – a metal tap drilled into the tree, and either a plastic milk jug or a metal bucket positioned under it. In a pinch, we made our own taps from a stick of elderberry or staghorn sumac.
This fellow is using heavy plastic tubing placed directly into the drill hole, but only because he’s out of taps. The tubing works OK, but is leaking more sap (the dark stain on the tree in the photo) than a tap would allow.
Depending on the weather, sap usually begins to rise in mid-February, flowing best when daytime temps are in the 40s or 50s, and dropping to the 30s at night. So, even though it’s a little late in the season by most standards, given the weather patterns, it’s the perfect time. And the sap is surely flowing. Storms, temperature fluctuations, and nightfall will stop the flow, so one of the things you learn when tapping a tree is patience.
When in doubt about sugaring time, watch the wildlife. Squirrels will nip off the maple buds and lap up the sweet sap. Woodpeckers hammering on trees will cause sap to flow, and you will see the wet stains on the trees. But in general, if the tree is alive, the sun is shining, and the temps are above freezing during the day and in the 20s to 30s at night – the sap is running, bringing nourishment to the new leaf buds.
Collecting the sap is the easy part. To turn maple sap into syrup, it must be boiled. Carefully, and preferably outside, if you are doing large quantities. Smaller amounts can be boiled in your kitchen without causing excessive steam.
I boiled mine on the cookstove in a large canning kettle. Since we had log walls, we didn’t have to worry about steaming off the wallpaper. Boiling requires careful observation. As the last of the water evaporates, the sap will begin to foam. This is the time for constant vigilance, because the last bit of water will evaporate quickly. Once that happens, there is a visible change in the sap. The edges look a little thicker, the color a little darker. If in doubt, tilting the pot slightly will reveal if there’s any water left floating above the sap. If there’s no visible water, the syrup is ready. The best maple syrup is pale gold in color and only slightly thicker than water. If you boil too long, your syrup turns into maple sugar candy. And a little longer, a black, tar-like substance. Don’t ask.
As the season progresses, the quality of the sap, and the syrup, diminishes. By the end of March, it’s usually over. It takes an incredible amount of sap to produce a shockingly small amount of syrup. A large canning kettle of sap boils down to about one cup of syrup, or for a different perspective, about 40 gallons of sap will yield one gallon of syrup. But it’s well worth it.
The sugar maples here were planted and spaced apart in a grove (some call it a sugar-bush) well-suited and probably with tapping in mind, because that’s where syrup came from in those earlier times. Native American Indians taught the Europeans how to tap trees and make syrup. How they learned to do it is anyone’s guess. They most likely observed some animal licking the sap, and experimented from there.
I guess I’m reaching the age where I’m old enough to appreciate history, and appalled enough at the direction the world is going in, to wonder what will become of children who have no idea that real maple syrup comes from a tree, and there’s not a bit of maple anything in “table syrup.” It’s scary.
Oh well, time to make pancakes.