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Making maple syrupSince I was a little girl, I have always had a kind of pioneer spirit in me and when I would drive to work in the middle of February, I would see many maple trees tapped for sap. This went on for about three years until I stopped and talked to the gentleman who was making the maple syrup. I learned how to do this from him. His first name is Jim. So Jim, I dedicate this to you.

Today I am going to get you started making your own maple syrup. There is just no comparison between the clear, lovely, golden syrup that you can make yourself and the dark brown syrup most people buy at the store. The first things you need are some maple trees, yours or those you can "borrow" from your neighbors. If you "borrow trees" from your neighbors, it is customary to give 1/2 of the syrup you get from their trees back to them. There are some things you have to order from a catalog, that's why I'm writing this article now.

First go out to your tree(s) and measure from the ground up 4 feet. Then measure your tree around (diameter). If it measures 31 inches or more you can use that tree to tap for maple sap. Then for each additional 12 inches, you can use an additional tap. Usually 4 taps are enough for the tree itself. It you have a really old tree, you can put in an extra tap, but no more than 5.

I have 2 sugar maples and 2 silver maples. The first year we made syrup, we got close to 2 gallons of syrup. My trees are very old, which means that they have large diameters. Because they are so large, I am able to use 12 taps on my 4 trees and I cook the syrup in my own kitchen.

The first time I actually cooked the sap down, I was on vacation at my girlfriend’s farm in Ohio. She has a maple tree that must be 200 years old. We tapped the tree and collected the sap and started cooking it down. I think we had 10 or 15 gallons of sap. Since I didn't know how long it took and we had been cooking it all day and the pan was still half full, we went to bed and left it cooking. I woke up and went down to check the progress and it still wasn't done. So I went back to bed and when I woke up again, black smoke was rolling through the house. I had burned the first batch of sap. I also killed my girlfriend’s largest stockpot. She was not pleased, to say the least. I was pretty disappointed too. If, for some reason, this happens to you, get a wire brush that fits on a drill. That will remove the burned residue of the syrup. It's true that you learn from your mistakes; I have never done this again.

The next thing to know is you have to have freezing weather. The sap starts to flow up the tree when the temperatures are in the 30º - 40º F during the day and 10º - 20º F at night. It doesn't have to be exact. This is what I look for when deciding when to tap my trees. I start to monitor the temperatures towards the end of January and usually tap my trees in February. I live in Chicago, Illinois in the Midwestern part of the United States.

It is important to have a special thermometer that costs approximately $45 and the jars and caps to seal the syrup in and the taps for the trees. The first year I did this, I used plastic gallon milk jugs to catch the sap. The next year I ordered plastic tubing to use with the taps, so it was easier. You also need a 5 gallon bucket to collect the sap with and a large volume pan to cook down the sap with and a pan like a 9 x 13 or larger cake pan to do the final cooking.

Any kind of maple tree can be used. My husband is thinking about tapping our red maple this year.

I forgot to mention about sap/syrup ratio: with a sugar maple tree, the ratio is 32 gallons to 1 which means you need 32 gallons of sap to cook 1 gallon of syrup. If you use other maple trees, the ratio gets higher, more sap to make 1 gallon of syrup.

After you cook it down and have strained it through many layers of cheesecloth, you don't have anything else to do. Bottle it and you will be surprised at the lovely amber color. The maple syrup industry usually saves it for their own private use.

Here is a link to order the catalog to get supplies: sales@leaderevaporator.com

To save money, do not order the beginning maple syrup package. It costs about $150 and you can probably get away with $60 - $70, depending on how many taps you put in your trees.


A Primer in Six Easy Lessons

Here's everything you need to know about maple sugaring . . . tongue in cheek, of course. What follows is long but worth the time. We found this in the Vermonter, April 3, 1977 by Chris Braithwaite. It's quoted exactly as originally published. Enjoy!

Editor's Note:
We found the following notes scribbled on the backs of old pin-up calendars, newspapers and lunch bags in a sugar house in the remote hills of West Glover. The author identifies himself only as the Sugar House Troll. Save for some reorganization and corrections of a few lamentable errors of spelling, grammar and fact, we pass on his notes intact.

Lesson I: Where It Comes From

Anybody from down country knows just how it's done. You poke a hole in a likely looking tree, and catch the maple syrup as it runs out.

In fact, maple syrup is made from sap, and sap is so close to water that a thirsty man would never notice the difference. This sap yields so little syrup so grudgingly that the sugar maker is never quite sure that his gathering crew didn't take a shortcut and dip the last tubful out of the brook. If he's a modern sugarmaker with no gathering crew to holler at, he suspects that a chipmunk chewed through his pipeline and dropped the end in the brook.

It does very little good to yell at chipmunks, and even less to yell at gathering crews.

Lesson II: How to Get It

Maple trees take exception to having holes punched in them, and get even by teasing sugarmakers almost to death. If it's too cold, sap won't run. If it's too warm, it won't run. Come perfect, clear spring weather with freezing nights and thawing days, it'll run like Roger Bannister for a few days, and then stop. A storm might make it run again, but a rain storm will probably be too warm. A snow storm might make the sap run, but you never know. This is because the trees will drop down gobs of the white stuff and knock the tops off your buckets. They'll fill up with melted snow which yields just as much syrup as brook water. It doesn't do any good to yell at maple trees, either.

Some of your modern sugarmakers have been so frustrated by this experience that they have put the whole bush on pipeline and hooked up a pump to suck the sap out of the trees. That probably doesn't work either, but may be a good way to use up surplus electricity.

Lesson III: How to Make It

Having gone about nuts waiting for the trees to give up a little sap, and having worked his help and his equipment almost to death lugging it to the sugar house, the sugarmaker now proceeds to get rid of it. This is accomplished by building a big fire under it and turning it into steam. Along with wood ashes and empty beer cans (see Lesson Six: How to Get Rich), steam is the major by-product of the maple industry.

It's a scientific fact that the steam from all the millions of gallons of sap boiled off in Vermont each spring rises to the heavens and hangs around till June, when it rains down on the sugarmaker's hay fields. This is another one of the wonderful cycles of nature.

The sugarmaker watches and waits and measures and dips and cusses and waits some more until the big moment when he opens the tap on his sugar pan and a pitiful little trickle of maple syrup drizzles out. For every 32 gallons of water he sends up in steam, he gets about a gallon of maple syrup. This is ridiculous.

Lesson IV: How to Keep Warm

The well-equipped sugarmaker will have somebody on hand to keep. Firing a sugar rig is a fine example of the way people tend to lose track of why they're doing a job and get obsessed with the task at hand. The gathering crew, for example, gets obsessed with keeping the buckets empty, and hates the trees for filling them up again. The sugarmaker wants to convert all that sap to steam, and hates the crew for bringing in more.

Now the fireperson's job is to get rid of that huge pile of wood he spent the winter collecting. And a sugar arch is a wonderful device to get rid of wood. He stokes it and pokes it and stuffs it full of the driest bits of split hardwood and dead cedar and valuable antique barn boards he can lay his hands on, and takes great pride in the hole he leaves in the pile.

Becky the Fireperson says this is a wonderful release for anyone who has spent the winder trying to stretch a February woodpile through April.

For the modern sugarmaker who heats his home and boils his sap with oil, the satisfaction much lie in knowing he'll be keeping a lot of Arabs pretty busy.

Lesson V: How to Get Around

The common forms of transportation in the maple sugar bush are horse, tractor, foot, snowshoe and helicopter. None are satisfactory. The difficulty here is snow, which varies in depth from one inch above the top of the highest pair of boots present, to the approximate height of Wilt (the Stilt) Chamberlain's belly button. This year a neighbor helped us string pipeline on skis. It was an interesting performance. He got around fine. But with a ski on each foot and a pole in each hand he couldn't carry anything that wouldn't fit in his pocket, or get closer than three feet to any tree (except once, when he used one to stop himself. He is trying to figure out a better way to stop himself.) If he got off his skis to do something, he was too short to climb back on.

He suggested that his combination of high mobility and utter uselessness made him an ideal candidate for supervisor. Every sugar bush needs a supervisor, and he did fine until the Troll accidentally backed the tractor over his ski tips.

Lesson VI: How to Get Rich

Maple sugaring is highly profitable, provided that you own the sugar bush in the first place, your grandfather bought the equipment in 1926, and you don't figure your time is worth anything. If you figure the cost of buying the bush, equipping it, and paying the help and yourself a living wage, sugaring would make a tax shelter that could keep a Rockefeller dry.

But there are some profitable opportunities in sugaring. It should be possible to obtain free help by convincing the neighbors that sugaring is an indispensable part of the Rural Experience, and a whole lot of fun. Make it clear that in turn for the experience, the help should provide some refreshment. Any beverage will do except milk, coffee, hard liquor, orange juice, tea, soft drinks, apple cider or water.

After the wood pile is gone, the buds are out and the sugar house is full of empties, haul the syrup home and sell it. That will cover expenses. Then collect all the empty refreshment cans, rent a truck, and head for the redemption center.

That is your profit.

Chris Braithwaite, Vermonter, Sunday, April 3, 1977

I thought I would include this because it's funny and tells of some of the problems that are associated with running a large sugar farm.

  • The American Indians taught the pilgrims how to make maple syrup when they came from England. In those days, a hatchet was used to tap the trees. However it tended to have a negative effect on the trees, usually dying after a few years of this kind of treatment. But if you can imagine the huge, virgin forests of back then, they had lots of trees to use if a few died off. The Indians had few spices, little salt and no natural sweeteners, so they used the maple syrup to flavor everything from meats to beverages. (The honey bees arrived with the pilgrims.)
  • The native Americans cooked down their sap to hard crystallized cakes, and they were cherished. The settlers traded for the cakes of maple sugar and were soon making it themselves. The tapping methods have changed little since they used hollowed out twigs to direct the sap into containers.

To actually tap the trees, today we use drills and a special bit. A 7/16 drill bit is used to tap the trees. This gives the appropiate size hole for the taps to fit in. Take special care to hold the drill steady while drilling the hole, so the sap doesn't leak around the tap. If for some reason you get a leak, simply wet some toilet paper and push it in where it seems to be leaking. You may need to repeat this if it starts to leak again.

When you actually drill the hole, drill up at a slight angle so the sap will roll down the hole into the spout and into you container. It should be approx. 2" long. We put a piece of tape on the drill bit to let us know when we get to the proper depth. Before drilling, you want to look closely at the tree to find the right place to put your tap. Stand under a large limb and look up. Look at the bark and watch how it runs up the tree. you want to find a place that has bark running all the way up to the limb with no imperfections in the bark until it reaches the limb. Put a tap there.

When the "sugarin" is done, the tree will heal itself. you will know when the sap run is over, because the sap will turn cloudy and sometimes have a yellow color to it. Throw this away, it will make bitter syrup.

Here is a list of things you need to order:

  • nylon spout brush - quantity 1
  • spout - as many as you need
  • spout driver - quantity 1
  • book, "Backyard Sugarin" - quantity 1
  • book, "Sugarhouse Treats" - quantity 1
  • thermometer adjustable scale - quantity 1
  • thermometer holder bracket - quantity 1
  • bottles and caps of your choosing

Mrs Susie

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