Tapping Maple Trees for Syrup

We have been tapping our maple trees for the last 6 years. It can be a lot of work, but it’s worth it!

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4 pots of sap boiling over the fire

You can tap almost any maple tree – in your urban yard, in the middle of a forest, or in your pasture. It doesn’t matter. We started out tapping the 3 sugar maples down a steep ravine in our backyard.

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It’s harder than it seems to carry 5 gallons of sap up a steep muddy hill…..

Later, we started tapping a few maples in our neighbor’s front yard. Now we tap the silver maples on the sand plains of central Minnesota.

There are only a few things you need to know about maple tree selection.

  • The tree must be at least 10″ in diameter at chest height. If I can’t give the tree a respectable hug, I don’t tap it.
  • You can tap all Maple trees and their relatives except for the Norway maple (most commonly seen as the purple leaved Crimson King – it doesn’t run sap in the spring.) This includes silver maple, freeman maple (autumn blaze and others,) box elder, sugar maple, amur maple, and swamp maple. There is a slight difference in taste but the major difference is sugar concentration. Sugar maples have the highest sugar concentration, so you will spend last time evaporating. Box elder has the least.
  • If you tap above or below old tapping holes, no sap will run. The xylem is scarred and closed off – forever.
  • The sap season follows temperature and barometric pressure – not the calendar.
  • Your tree needs to be in an area that gets below freezing at night (and all winter) in order to tap maple trees

Those are the major rules. Pretty easy stuff. You can use almost anything you have on hand to get started or you can buy maple tapping equipment.  One year, we ran out of spiles and tubes, so we tapped a tree with a pen, a shoelace, and a bucket. It worked great!

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The sap will run faster and earlier, if you can tap on the south side of the tree, and if the tree is in open air. Our forest trees always take a day or two  longer and run slower than the trees in the pastures.

Here are some simple tips to improve your first tapping experience 

  1. Buy 5/8″ taps with tubing. We found these to be the easiest and most efficient. Since it is cold during tapping season, we use 5 gallon buckets and allow the trees to fill the buckets during the day. Some days they only fill them 1/3 of the way, some days they have to be emptied twice.
  2. Do not let your syrup get over 45-50F. Collect it and store it in a refrigerator if you can’t boil right away. We use milk cartons, old bottles, anything to store the sap inside.

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    Maple sap inside an old cheese ball container…. looks like water!

  3. Wash everything really well! The first time we washed our supplies, we used soap and bleach (our buckets were used.) But never after the first time. All maple syrup supplies get washed with just hot water so that no soap residue taints the finished syrup.
  4. Store some of the sap outside if you can. When we have snow on the ground, we bury a large lidded garbage can (bought new and used only for maple syrup) and store sap outdoors. When we store the sap outside, sometimes ice forms in the sap. Native Americans would toss the ice because it has a very low percentage of sugar inside. We do the same.
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    Ice in our sap bucket – sorry for the horrible photography!

    The rule is – if the nighttime temperature was above 16F, then you can toss all the ice when you go to grab the sap (we let the ice sit inside most of the time to keep the rest of the sap cool). If it was below 16F, then more of the concentrated sap would have also frozen (one solid brick of ice versus ice just floating in the sap.) You do lose a little sugar this way, but it is more efficient – just give the ice back to the trees or to your animals (or drink it – it’s good stuff.)

  5. Cook the sap outside. It creates too much humidity if you do it inside the house. You can cook over a propane heater – turkey fryers work great – or cook over open fire. The cost works out about the same, but a fire is a little messier and smokier.

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    We average 1 gallon of evaporation per hour per pot over the fire

  6. Use stainless steel or cast iron. Both metals can handle extended heat and are easy to clean. Coat the outside of the pans in dish soap to make clean up easier afterward.
  7. Use more than one pot if you can – for faster evaporation. Long steamer pans work even better. Just be sure you have at least a 6″ tall pan and that you leave room for the sap to boil. If the pot starts to boil over, a drop of oil (butter, coconut oil, etc) will keep it from foaming up and out of the pot.
  8. Use a good quality filter. You will need two types. One for getting out big chunks, like sticks, bugs, etc. And one for filtering the final product – this will remove ash and some of the niter (sugar sand – tree minerals.) Old cotton t-shirts do a pretty good job of removing ash and niter.9
  9. Finish your syrup inside – the last hour or two of boiling – so you can control the temperature better. Use a candy thermometer to make sure you do not overboil. If you boil too long, you’ll make maple sugar. It can be turned back into syrup with water but it’s a waste of energy (unless sugar was your goal.) Maple syrup boils at 7 degrees over the boiling point of water: 212F + 7F = 219F4
  10. Start out small. 3-5 trees. It can be tough to work out a storage system for all the sap, a boiling regimen, and to set aside large blocks of time to complete everything. Take your time – enjoy the process and the results.
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Early sap makes lighter syrup and later sap makes darker syrup. In this photo, the jar on the left is only partially evaporated – the sealed jars are finished. We use partially finished syrup/sap when we make sumac lemonade – since we add water to the sumac, it saves us time to not finish boiling all the way to syrup.

We store our syrup in mason jars. We have zillions since we use them for honey, jams, tomatoes, herbs, and all sorts of things. They are quick to sterilize, easy to use, and convenient. If you have access to little bitty jars, I recommend you use those to give samples to friends and family. Everyone will want a taste but if you have only a few trees, it’s harder to share a whole lot. Good luck and have fun!
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