Last weekend we finally (finally! I whisper/shout under my breath because I’ve been wanting to go for the past three years.) made it to our local environmental center for their maple harvest festival. As we mentioned in our Welcome March post, this month is prime maple tapping time in PA as the warm weather creeps north. You’re laughing because we started this week with temps in the teens, aren’t you? Well, while everyone agrees that it’s time for winter to throw in the towel, below freezing overnight temps are necessary for a good tapping season.
Why do we tap trees in the spring? When maple trees are growing throughout the summer, they produce starches that are stored in tree’s sapwood. During the fall and spring some of these starches are converted to sugar molecules (mostly sucrose) and stored in the sap allowing it to flow throughout the tree as the temperatures warm. A healthy supply of sap requires water, which is plentiful at this time of year from snowmelt and rain showers. And lastly, the season’s combination of cold nights with temps below freezing and warm days with temps above freezing creates a pressure in the sapwood. When we drill into the tree, that pressure pushes the sap out of the hole and into our buckets!
I was surprised to learn that you can tap more than just Sugar Maples! Black, red, and silver maples can all be tapped, but as you may have guessed, sugar maples have the highest sugar content. The sugar content ranges from 1-6% in sap, and can be measured using a refractometer. On average 40 gallons of sap are required to produce 1 gallon of syrup, which will have a final sugar content of 66-67%. Now for the sad news, on average a single taphole will only produce 15 gallons of sap in a season, but under ideal conditions it is possible to collect 40-80 gallons from that tap!
Identifying the Sugar Maples
Obvious, I know, but the whole process begins with tree identification. This is made all the more challenging since maple trees are tapped in early spring when their leaves aren’t present. Winter tree identification requires analyzing three to four aspects of the tree, and it all starts with the three Bs: bark, branching, and buds.
- bark: The bark of young sugar maple trees is smooth and light grey, but as they grow their bark darkens slightly, thickens, and begins to produce cracks and furrows, giving it a highly textured look and feel. So first things first, look out into the forest and identify the grayish trees.
- branching: All maple trees have branches that grow in an opposite pattern, as opposed to the alternating and whirled patterns of other trees. An opposite pattern means that two branches, one on each side, will grow out from the same height on an older branch. Another fun fact, if you remember the phrase MAD Horse Buck, you’ll have a tool to remember all of the deciduous trees with an opposite branching pattern: Maple, Ash, Dogwood, Horse Chestnut, and Buckeyes. Ok, so you’ve found the grey trees with textured bark and opposite branches, now get in close and look at the buds.
- buds: When look along a sugar maple twig, you’ll see that the buds are dark brown or reddish with shingle-type scales. They appear in that opposite formation that you would expect given the tree’s branching pattern. At the end of a twig, you will see three buds. The terminal bud is the largest, center bud, and it is flanked on each side by smaller opposite buds similar to their positioning along the length of the twig.
Finally, if you want to be extra certain that you have a sugar maple, or any maple at that, you can try looking at the overall shape of the tree, but if you’re in a dense forest area, it may be hard to get a good look at the profile of your tree.
Do you want to learn more about winter tree identification? I really like my copy of Winter Tree Finder, but there are also plenty of free resources, including this winter tree identification guide that contains detailed pictures of the bark and buds.
Tapping your Trees
There are plenty of great online resources for tapping maples, so I’ll provide an outline here and leave the details to the experts. Begin by measuring the diameter of your trees, you should only tap trees that are at least 10 inches in diameter. A tree that is 10-20 inches in diameter can handle one tap per season, trees over 20 inches can supply sap to two taps. You will want to drill a hole, insert your spile with a hook for your bucket, hang your bucket, cover it with a lid (to keep out dust and thirsty animals), and that’s it! Of course you will want to check on your bucket regularly and empty it into refrigerated holding container until you have enough to begin the evaporation process. It’s necessary to keep the sap cold because it can spoil.
From Sap to Syrup
Turning the sap into syrup is relatively simple. You’re boiling the sap, without letting it burn, to evaporate excess water and concentrate the sugar. This may be as simple as boiling down your sap in a big pot if you’re doing a small scale batch at home, or investing in an evaporator if you dream big. Whatever your method, you will want to do this step outdoors if possible. The process creates an extreme amount of water vapor that can be damaging to your walls if done inside. You’ll see that most sugar shacks have a lot of windows, open walls, and vents in the roof to allow the water to escape.
As I mentioned above, you want the syrup to reach 66-67% sugar, and you’ll need your candy thermometer because you want it to reach a temperature 7F above boiling, which is 212F at 1 atmosphere of pressure (they say it that way because you should adjust your final temperature depending upon your altitude). It’s important to not allow the sugar content to exceed 68-69% because at that point sugar crystals may begin to form in the liquid.
Grades of syrup
Did you know that the grade of your syrup has nothing to do with quality? Rather, the grades provide a measure of the color and flavor of the syrup. Grading goes from lightest to darkest in this order: fancy grade A, grade A light amber, grade A medium amber, grade A dark amber, and finally grade B. The lighter the syrup the less maple flavor you will get, whereas grade B syrup is described as having an intense maple flavor with carmel undertones. Just as with personal preference for all things food, you should pick the intensity you like best.
For the longest time, it was hard to find grade B syrups on grocery store shelves, but as consumer preferences have changed it has become more and more prevalent. You may be able to find some at your local farmer’s market, but also in Trader Joes, Whole Foods, and possibly your regional grocery store. But get this ~ Vermont is changing it’s grade structure because people don’t like to buy grade B, thinking it’s lower quality! Really people? It’s what’s inside that counts.
- Native Americans used to collect the syrup by slicing into the bark with an ax. This was much more damaging to the trees than the spile method.
- Early spiles were made of soft wood. They would shave off a portion of the wood and use a hot metal poker to burn out a whole or channel for the sap to flow along before it dropped into the bucket.
- Buckets over an open flame were a common way to boil down the syrup, but an earlier method used a hollowed out log to hold the sap and then hot rocks were put into it to create the heat for evaporation.
- If you want to learn more about the history of maple syrup production, this site provides a detailed article about the history of maple tapping including a detailed timeline.
- In more recent history, do you remember hearing about the great Canadian maple syrup heist? The whole story, including Canada’s control of the market is much more interesting than I realized! Here’s a great illustrated account of the story.
Needless to say going to the festival was so much fun! It created the perfect excuse to get outside, even with the chill in the air. I can read about maple tapping online, but there’s nothing like getting out into the woods and seeing the process in action, and now I have an itch to try tapping some maples. AND I didn’t even mention the festival’s organic pancake and sausage breakfast that fueled this whole mission!
What about you? Any maple syrup festivals in your neighborhood? Have you tapped the trees in your backyard? If so, are you a pro at winter identification or have you tapped an oak or two? Your secret’s safe with us.