Come the maple sugaring season, you have to watch the weather. If it’s too cold, the sap won’t flow. If it’s too warm, without temperatures dipping below freezing at night, the sap …
Come the maple sugaring season, you have to watch the weather. If it’s too cold, the sap won’t flow. If it’s too warm, without temperatures dipping below freezing at night, the sap won’t flow, either. Like Goldilocks, the maple trees want it just right in order to offer up their springtime nectar.
For years, I only watched the weather this time of year to gauge the status of the crust for my late-winter ski adventures in the Lost Lake Swamp and beyond. A few years ago, however, I counted the number of red maples near the house and realized that the changing climate had left us with a decent sugarbush. So, we invested in some taps, some of those heavy blue plastic bags, and made use of a couple of old buffet-line chafing pans, which I suspended above my blacksmith forge, to boil down the sap. It can be a little smoky tending the fire at times, but it all works pretty well.
So, I’ve added late March well in April to our annual seasonal calendar of food gathering from nature. It’s actually given us a jump start on the year, since, in the past, our food gathering typically didn’t begin until July and August, when the blueberries ripen and the chanterelles begin to appear in the pine woods.
When September rolls around, it’s time for ricing, which eases us into grouse season and soon enough into deer season, when we add another year’s worth of meat to the freezer. Add a few walleye, northern pike, whitefish, and maybe a lake trout, to the mix, and it reminds you that one could live pretty well off the fat of this land. No wonder the Ojibwe and Lakota fought pitched battles over this country.
You may have heard that you can only make quality syrup from sugar maples, which are largely limited to mild microclimates here on the edge of the boreal woods. Turns out that red maples, which have exploded in abundance in our region over the last quarter century as our winters have warmed, make a syrup that’s indistinguishable from sugar maple. Red maples, which seem to thrive in our shallow, rocky soils, don’t get very big up here, but anything over about eight inches can be tapped, in my experience. Ten inches and above is better but given that my largest red maple is probably no more than 12 inches in diameter, one can’t be too picky.
The sap typically starts to flow in late March after a few of those warm, sunny days start to melt the snow and activate the maples. The season came early this year… we were in full collection and boiling mode by the middle of March. Over about three weeks, we gathered over 100 gallons of sap from 20 trees, which boiled down to just under three gallons of beautiful, sweet, amber syrup.
The tools of this trade are pretty basic and can be purchased at places like L&M Supply or Tractor Supply in Virginia. Those stores also have short handbooks on the basics of making your own maple syrup. I also found a kit online, that came with taps, an appropriately sized drill bit, blue bags, and cleverly designed two-inch pvc pipes that you attach to your bags. Then you hook them over the tap and you’re set to collect the tree’s offerings.
Don’t be disappointed if the initial flow is limited. My trees went a week with almost nothing, but when the tree’s internal “pump” turns on, the sap can come in a hurry. A blue bag, which can hold at least two gallons, can fill in a single day when the flow gets rolling. I pour the sap into plastic, five gallon jugs, which I pull in a sled as I go from tree to tree.
Once the flow starts, you’ll have to be ready for the next step in the process, since the sap will only keep a week at the most, and only that long if it’s kept cold. If you leave it out in the sun on a couple warm days, it can start to sour and then it’s not worth the effort to boil it down.
So, if you have to store sap, set your jugs in a cold garage or other outbuilding, where they’ll stay cold but preferably won’t freeze solid, which will make them difficult to pour into your boiling setup.
Unless you’re only trying to boil down a gallon or two for fun, boiling sap is not an indoor activity. When you’re reducing a hundred-plus gallons of sap into three gallons of syrup, you’re making an awful lot of steam, which you probably don’t want to add to the inside of your house.
The key to a good boil is to keep a sustained heat. A well-managed fire will keep your sap at a steady boil and that can make shorter work of the boiling process. Still, it takes time, so I always try to combine sap boiling with other chores in the yard.
Some people like to use a propane burner to heat their sap, but most purists prefer to use wood since it imparts a somewhat smoky flavor to the finished syrup.
Once I’ve boiled the sap down almost to the end, I filter the near-boiling and, by now, amber-colored sap through a wool filter designed specifically for that purpose (you can buy them at L&M Supply in season). I set a large kitchen pot underneath the filter and once it’s all dripped through, you’re ready to take it into the kitchen for final boiling. You want to get the sugar content just right and the easiest way to do that is through the use of a digital candy thermometer. When the sap’s boiling point reaches 219 degrees, it’s finished syrup and you’re ready to can it. I leave those details to my wife Jodi so I’m not going to offer any advice on the canning process.
I’m not going to kid you. Making maple syrup is a lot of work, but it’s the best kind of work— deliberate and meaningful. And the reward at the end is especially sweet.