“It’s what’s on the inside that counts when tapping maple syrup.” How often have we all heard that saying? When most people are enjoying the majesty of our state tree’s handsome shape or the breathtaking colors that the chills of autumn bestow upon its leaves, what’s on the inside is all a maple syrup enthusiast can think about. The clear sap running through the Sugar Maple’s trunk and branches contains sugar which can be harvested and made into delicious maple syrup.
Pure maple syrup is made exclusively from the sap of maple trees. Any type of maple tree can be tapped, but Sugar Maple sap contains the highest amount of sugar, about 2%. Most of what is available at your local grocery store is maple-flavored corn syrup and contains little or no real maple syrup. If you’ve never tasted pure maple syrup, you are missing out on a much sweeter and richer taste.
So how is this gift from nature created? It all starts in early spring when the sap begins to flow. As the ground starts to thaw, the sap of the Sugar Maple moves from the roots back to the branches where the buds will use the sugar to create leaves and new growth. The sap flow daily can vary heavily. Ideally, you want the day to be sunny and warm and the night to dip below freezing. These conditions will allow for greater sap movement within the tree and larger sap collections.
Any tree with a diameter over 12″ can be tapped. A small metal tube-like device called a ‘spile’ is inserted into a hole drilled about 1.5″ into the trunk. When conditions are right, sap will bleed from the bored-out wood and through the spile into a collection device. Beginners can collect sap in buckets or bag assemblies. Large producers attach tubing directly to the spiles and use vacuum pumps to constantly suck the sap into large collection tanks. Up to four gallons of sap per day can be collected from a single tap. The collection is halted when the sap begins to appear cloudy or when the buds of the tree begin to swell. At this point, the sap will yield syrup with a bitter taste.
Once you have collected your sap, all you need to do for syrup is boil it! Boiling will evaporate the water in the sap and take the sugar concentration from 2% to about 67%. Generally, it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. The finished color of your syrup can vary from light amber to a rich dark brown depending on when the sap was collected and many other circumstantial factors. Sap collected early in the season usually yields a lighter-colored syrup with a milder flavor, whereas sap collected later creates a darker, bolder-tasting product. A beginner can boil the sap on a stove top or over a flame from a turkey fryer. If you have several gallons to boil down, it is best done outside. The water you are boiling off has to go somewhere and you don’t want it collecting on the walls and windows in your house. Larger producers use shallow, flat pans or commercially produced evaporators fueled by a wood fire or other heat source. Ideally, you create as much surface area for the steam to blow off as possible with your pan. Maintain a hard boil on the sap until you reach 67% sugar. This point is determined with a hydrometer which measures the specific gravity of the product. If you don’t have one, you will have to pay close attention to the bubbles from boiling. Once they turn yellow and begin to build, you have created syrup. If you boil the sap too long, the sap can burn or begin to crystallize into maple sugar (another delicious treat and perhaps another article).
Now that you have concentrated the sap to syrup, you will need to filter the product. At this point, it is very cloudy due to the ‘maple sand’ that has been created. This ‘sand ‘ is not harmful as it is purely crystallized nutrients like calcium, magnesium, and other trace elements found in the tree’s sap, but it does look unappealing and can be gritty. The hot syrup is run through a very fine filter to yield the clear product we are familiar with. Once filtered, it should be hot packed into a clean suitable container. Like honey, maple syrup will keep almost indefinitely.
I have been making syrup for several years and it seems to have become a hobby gone awry. I end up tapping more and more trees each year. A lot of work goes into making syrup, but I love the satisfaction of producing a hand-crafted, completely natural product. I collect my sap from natural strands of Sugar Maples growing at the Johnson’s Nursery tree farm in Jackson and craft it over a hardwood fire. Twelve-ounce containers of my More Steam! brand is available for purchase at the nursery.