Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Making Maple Syrup - Give it a try

Instruction, Tips and Tricks on Maple Syrup Makin'

There are plenty of resources on the internet on how to tap trees and make maple syrup, they range from full scale production companies to some wingnut who taps an ash or spruce by mistake.

I thought a practical description on tapping as a hobby may be of value to a great number of folks who would like to spend some time outside, make a few cases of syrup a season, and receive the satisfaction of a relatively stress free hobby.

I have been at this hobby for about four years now, and I will warn you now, that it is impossible to resist the temptation of expanding slightly each year. I started with a dozen collection buckets, and now have nearly sixty. I have been fortunate enough this year to have a friend who is very experienced in this activity, and he has been kind enough to follow behind me correcting my many mistakes. So this article is based on my experiences, as well as his years of production.

I also do this on the cheap, so my list of required materials is not extravagant, and like any hobby, you can pay as much as you have available for all of the fancy stuff.. but I am too cheap for that, and need to reserve any extra funds for beer as part of the boiling off process.


  • Spiles – no getting around buying these – the aluminum ones are all the same
    Run-o-the-mill Spile
  • Buckets – anything will do for these as long as they hang on the spile hooks. 2 gal commercial ice-cream pails work well – just go mooch some from an ice cream parlor. One of the luxury items I DO have is proper 2 gal metal Sap Buckets. They are easy to hook, and well, just look better on the trees.
  • Lids – these are a must, rain and snow will ruin your sap in the buckets. Lids from the Ice Cream parlor work well (drill two 1/8” holes in the edge – one inch apart, and string thin wire through them to the lid hole on the spile). Again, my luxury is the metal lids and hangers.
  • Drill and Bit – you will see banter on the various sites, all fighting over what sized bit to use.. all over 16ths of an inch.. grab a 7/16th bit and you are good to go. If you plan on using a cordless drill, bring lots of charged batteries.. Maples are hard wood, and kill a cordless drill quickly. (no one tells you this.. but you now know). I personally use a 100 year old brace and bit hand drill… no batteries required.
No Batteries Required
  • Gathering/Storage – I suggest a 20 gal (or two or three) Rubbermaid plastic garbage can and snap on lid. After gathering the sap from the buckets – you need somewhere to store it until you get boiling. I bury mine to the lids in snow in the shade to keep the gathered sap chilled and fresh. 
  • Evaporator – This can be anything that can stand being on an open fire for hours and hours. My first year it was just large kitchen pots (now with melted handles and ruined for life), but I expanded to a 2’X3’ tin flat bottomed pan. The bigger the surface area, the faster your production. This was the most difficult thing for me to find – but with eyes open I got it free from an old gal getting out of her hobby. Be creative in thinking what you can use, or buy one already made (but you will have less money for beer because they are pricey)
  • Finishing Pot – Maybe not one of the best kitchen pots, but something that can hold a gallon or so and can be placed on your finishing heater.
  • Filters - Don’t try to save money here, for final sap finishing, pay the money for a wool filter. I also have a kitchen strainer (with a clean rag covering - attached with elastic) for preliminary filtering. There are also fabric filters that fit inside the wool filter.. have a dozen of those on hand at all times.
    It will hurt - pricey, but a must have
  • Thermometer – a good candy thermometer is the best, spend a couple of bucks on a good one, easy to read with large gradients.. you will have to look through steam in the dark of the night to see exact temperatures. In yoru kitchen, pill a pot with water, bring it to a boil and place your thermometer in it. Record the temperature on your thermometer when the water is at a hard boil (mine is 207F). This “calibrates” for your altitude. Yep water boils at different temperatures based on altitude. But this is not a science lesson. Just record the temperature. This is a important step
  • Cinder Blocks – A cheap and easy way to make a fire box.. you will see grandiose plans for Evaporator fire boxes made of metal, concrete with fire brick with budgets in the hundreds – I made a fire box with a 2’X3’ open top for my evaporator for under $20. Be creative with your design to fit your evaporator best you can for maximum heat. 
    Ain't Pretty - the tin holds in the heat
  • Wood – You are going to burn LOTS of wood.. make a BIG pile of it. Good news once your fire box have a good roar of flame, you can burn anything.. but a good feed of hardwood works best for me. Some use propane burners –these work if you have a big bank account.
  • Kitchen Stove, Coleman Stove or Propane Stove – you will need a source of heat to “finish off your syrup”. Something that heat can be controlled precisely. 
  • Lawn Chair, Cooler, and Beer (and maybe even a guitar)– self-explanatory.. Boiling takes a while.\
  • Sugar Maple trees – You will need these too (google if you are not certain)

The Tapping:

I figure any tree with a minimum diameter of 10 inches is a good candidate for a single tap, if you get into the big brutes 16 throw a couple of taps in it. When deciding where to drill your hole ideally you want – south facing (opposite side of the tree where the moss is), below a big healthy branch (avoid scared, broken off branch side). If you can see a big healthy root from the ground – above that is a good spot as well. The tap should be 3-4 feet from the ground.. but do keep in mind if you are standing on 2 feet of snow take that into account. Experience has shown me if you don’t account on this, you will look like an idiot when the snow is nearly gone and your taps are 7 feet up the tree –your neighbours will laugh and point. Don’t throw everything down and quit if you can’t find the perfect spot, try to find a healthy spot on the tree somewhere and drill away. In you next years, avoid last year’s tap holes.. rule of thumb, minimum 3 inches sideways then 3 inches up or down from any previous holes.

Drill the hole is a slight upward angle, just enough that sap will flow out of the tree and down the spile, with a bright red marker, measure 2 ½ inches from the tip of your drill – that is your depth gauge. I chuckle with folks that say mark this on your drill bit with tape.. give it a shot, you will see why I chuckle.. Bring lots of tape (and a red permanent marker)

Please, this is important otherwise you may spend sleepless nights with trees that are not producing sap – and I have YET to see this on any site. After drilling, clean the hole out of all shavings, a small stick, or even the drill bit (without the drill on) will do a good job. Also make sure the spile you are using is not plugged with last years hardened sap. It does not take much of debris left in the hole to plug the tap – and you will not see any sap from that tree.

Tap the spile in gently (again, something I learned the hard way).. it only needs to create a seal around the spile and the hole. You are not hammering in the last spike of the transcontinental railroad.

This tapping can only be done when it is above zero – a frozen tree with you wailing on a tap to drive it in will split (you will not see the split), but this breaks the seal of your spile and your sap will run down the tree and not into your buckets. As you examine your buckets after you are done tapping, and see a tree wet with sap running down the bark – you will be haunted with my warning you and saying “I told you so”.. so WHEN this happens to you.. not much you can do. You can try going to a ½’ bit, and re-drilling and re-tapping.. may work, but you are probably pooched for the season on that tap.

Hang your bucket on the hook, put on your lid and pace like and expectant father for the first drips of sap to ping on the bottom of your bucket.

Weather & Season

You will learn to be a better weather source than Accuweather.. the ideal "running" weather is -5 C at night and 5 C in the day. Does not mean you wont get sap if it varies, in short below zero at night and above zero during the day. There is no "official" start to the season, but can run from Late Feb (Generally Starts in Early March) and goes until the weather is too warm day and night.. usually may. Folks say as soon as the trees start to bud then you are done.. I must have taller trees than most cause I can never see that. 
What you will see in the morning - Frozen Sap 

Gathering & Storing 

 Up to you when you do this.. I like late afternoons, I carry a Jerry Can, gather until it is full, carry to my Garbage Can for storage.. but this process.. is whatever works best for your collection route.

When it comes to storage,  I loved this tip when I heard it –TREAT YOUR SAP LIKE MILK.. whatever environment your sap is in (be it in the buckets in the trees for a couple of days or in storage.. you need only ask yourself “If this was milk would it go sour in these conditions”. Not many write about this, but sap will sour, and pour it out. It will turn green and smell “off”.. warm days, always double check each bucket before adding it to all you have stored. This happening just once will ruin your day, and probably make you think about picking up a different hobby, such as cutting down every maple tree in sight.


This is not a complicated step – put your sap in your evaporator, get lots of heat and keep at a rolling boil. As the water evaporates and you have space in your evaporator, add more fresh sap. This takes a while, get comfortable, open your cooler and enjoy the peace and quiet. You can continue to add fresh sap until you would like to “finish”. As the sap thickens in your evaporator, you will also be able to smell the maple smell, place your thermometer in it. Make sure it is deep enough to get a good accurate reading. I never trust mine, so right or wrong, I place my thermometer in different locations.

Finishing Temperature

This is what will separate you from the guy who taps ash and spruce trees in error. Grade A maple syrup boils at 7 DEGREES ABOVE THE BOILING POINT OF WATER. So earlier I mentioned to determine what the boiling point of water is in your area – add 7 degrees to that (Mine is 207F + 7F = 214 Degrees). As the sap thickens its boiling temperature increases very slowly. As the temperature of a hard boiling sap in your evaporator nears the 7 degrees above water boil, mine at around 213F, it needs to be transferred from the evaporator into a smaller pot to be placed on a propane burner (or stove or campstove). Have your wool filter ready for this process as this is a start to your fine filtering. With the cloth filter inserted in the wool filter, drain from the evaporator into your finishing pot through the filter.

Watch carefully the thermometer in your finishing pot. There are 2 indicators that it is ready, one – the thermometer reads 7 degrees above water boil and (maybe even more important, you will see a distinct change in the bubbles of it boiling. You will see from experience that the bubbles become larger, firmer, and distinctively different from what you have been watching for the last several hours on the evaporator.


With your wool filter and fresh cloth insert ready.. get your clean bottles ready. Oh, you need a funnel in the neck of the bottle. Pour patiently the hot syrup through the filter into the bottles. You will make a complete mess of this the first attempt, and there are no real tricks, other than figuring out the process that works for you. Be creative and maybe someone to help you is a good idea.

You can go directly into bottles. My tip? Fill up clean 40oz booze bottles and let sit over night. It is near impossible to avoid sugar sand in your syrup. This is just small crystals of sugar that make it past your filtering. There is nothing wrong with this, but may make your syrup slightly cloudy. If you let your booze bottles sit for a day or two, this will settle to the bottom. I then pour into my fancy syrup bottles, leaving the sediment in the bottom of the booze bottles. These remains are not wasted, as you just add it to your next batch you are finishing on your stove, and it will be mixed in, to be filtered and bottled again.

YER DONE – have fun, and feel free to leave any questions and comments here.