Making homemade maple syrup is a rewarding experience — twice. First, the process is educational and fun, and then, you get to enjoy your own supply of fresh maple syrup for as long as it lasts. It is easier to buy pure maple syrup in the store, but sugaring can be a fun family event or even a class project for school. The methods for making maple syrup are basically the same that have been used for hundreds of years.
Sugaring is the process of turning sap from a maple tree into maple syrup, or maple sugar. Sap is a liquid sugar produced by the trees as a defense mechanism to keep from freezing in the winter. As temperatures get colder, the maple trees pull the sugar water further down its root system to keep them warm. When temperatures rise during the day, the sap runs up the trunk and out to the branches. In the spring, when the roots no longer need the sap, it is expelled out the ends of the branches, mostly onto my car.
But you can intercept the flowing sap and make your own maple syrup.
The first thing you need to get started is one or more maple trees at least one foot in diameter. Sugar maples are ideal and will yield the greatest amount of sap. My maple is a 40-year-old Norway Maple, about three feet in diameter, and it works just fine. For each tree, you will need a “spile.” This is a tap, which when hammered into a hole in the tree, will direct the flow of sap into a bucket or other collection vessel. You should use one spile for each foot in diameter for the tree. A thin sugar maple might use one, while my tree can take up to three. You can purchase spiles at country farm markets or sometimes at local nature centers.
You will need a hammer, a drill and a bit equal in width to the spile — usually 1/4-inch.
You will need a bucket, which hangs off the hook at the top of the spile. Or, you can purchase a length of plastic tubing that fits snugly over the end of the spiles, about 3/8-inch, and run that to a sterilized 30-gallon plastic tote box. Either method works fine.
You will need access to an open fire where you can heat a large boiling pot. A sugaring veteran explained to me that you can complete the process indoors, but only if you want to steam off your wallpaper or repaint your ceiling.
Your large boiling pot must have a cover, to keep out as much ash or soot as possible. You will want a strainer, so that you can skim any inorganic debris that might float in the sap.
You will need a tablespoon, and finally, you will need quart-size canning jars.
The first step is to select your tree. You may need to check the output frequently, so don’t select one too far away. You will drill the hole for the spiles about three feet up the trunk from the base, so select a tree with few knots or trunk scars. The best time to start depends on where you live, but if you have a few consecutive days where the temperature creeps above 32 degrees, you can expect the sap to start running. In Upstate New York, early to mid-March is ideal.
Drill the hole. For best results, drill the hole at a slight 15-20 degree incline, so that gravity will assist the sap in flowing out your spile. If you drill during the day, the sap should drip from the hole immediately. Clean the sawdust or wood residue away from the hole with your finger.
Insert the spile. The hook is on the bottom. Gently tap the spile into the hole with the hammer.
Attach your collection device. Hang your bucket from the hook, or attach your plastic tubing over the end of the tap. I have seen commercial maple syrup operations where they run the plastic tubes downhill to one central collection area. With just one tree, I used the tote box with three tubes running to the same box. I prefer this method because ants love the sap, and the covered tote box keeps some of them out.
Collect the sap. You will be surprised at the volume. My one tree generates about 40-50 gallons of sap. You must keep it chilled or refrigerated. If temperatures rise, the sap will go bad over a few days. Each day, I transferred the sap to thoroughly cleaned coolers, and added ice or snow if necessary to keep the sap chilled. You want to keep sap separated by when it is collected. Early sap yields a light-colored, light-flavored syrup. Sap collected at the peak of the run results in your dark amber, Grade AA maple syrup, like that you see in the store. Late-season sap turns into a dark brown, sludgy consistency with a bitter aftertaste. This dark syrup may not be ideal for pancakes or waffles, but it is perfect for making sauces or using it as a glaze for barbecued meats.
Boil the sap. The sap is basically sugar water. If you taste it, you get a faint sweet flavor. To get to the good stuff, the maple syrup, you need to boil off most of the water. About 98 percent to be precise. Forty gallons of sap creates just more than a quart of maple syrup. So, you generate a big fire, and boil, and boil, and boil. The sap will take on an amber color as it heats. Commercial operations use huge evaporators to speed this process. “Sugar shacks” are covered pavilions where this evaporation process takes place, or you can use the great outdoors. I rig a large rack over a fire, supported by concrete blocks. I start at daybreak, and the evaporation process usually takes two full days of boiling. Now you see why the wallpaper will come down in the kitchen.
Finish the syrup. I usually finish the syrup on the kitchen stove so that I maintain better temperature than on the open fire. I use a 5-gallon stock pot, and when the sap begins to carmelize, the bubbles will become more tightly packed and the syrup will froth. You will hear popping sounds as the syrup bubbles from the bottom of the pot. You do not want to overcook the syrup, or it will turn into maple sugar. Use your tablespoon. Dip the bowl end in the syrup. The liquid will sheen off the spoon, but when it becomes a thick syrup, it will develop “legs” and stick to the spoon a bit longer. That’s the time to take it off the heat. If you see white crystals forming, remove the pot from the heat immediately, or you will have a hard maple candy that will need to be chiseled from the pot.
Pour the syrup. Prepare the quart mason jars by running hot water over them. Pour the syrup into the jars while it is still hot. Otherwise, much of your hard labor will stick to the pot. As it cools, the maple syrup will thicken.
Refrigerate. The syrup I make stores easily in the refrigerator, and I get enough to last almost a full year. I separate the early, peak and late-season batches and use them for different purposes. I have also poured syrup into smaller sampler jars and given it as gifts.
It’s a lot more effort than buying the syrup at the store, but the reward is delicious, fresh maple syrup, and a sense of pride having made it yourself.