Our first year tapping our trees for liquid gold! How we did it, what we learned and the final product from start to finish!
I've been wanting to try to tap our maples since we bought our property in 2019. This year we gave it a go, on a very small scale! I was able to purchase some taps and lines from a small farm down the road called New Creations Family Farm. The lines and taps came with some awesome directions on how to get started with tapping too!
I will say, I was not at all prepared for this! We are still in the middle of construction at our property and are not living there yet. This means I have to collect the sap daily, and then somehow process the sap between our house and my brothers where we are currently living. It's pretty much a pain BUT TOTALLY WORTH IT!
Lets start with a few maple facts and then I'll get to our process!
Although sugar maples are the best trees to tap for their sweet sap, other trees also produce sap that can be turned into syrup including birch, black walnut, and several species of maples.
Trees store starch in their roots before winter. The starch gets converted into sugar that rises in the sap at the end of winter/early spring.
The freezing temperatures at night and warm temperatures during the day cause the sap to rise into the tree. This only happens a few weeks out of the year, especially for us "Michiganders".
Once temperatures stay above freezing and the trees begin to bud, the sap changes and is no longer good to tap and the season is over.
Sap must be treated similar to milk in the sense that it does spoil. This means you have to be ready to process (evaporate) the sap often depending on how much you are collecting.
It takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup!
The color of the syrup depends on what time of the season the sap is boiled. The first sap that comes from the tree will produce a golden syrup that tastes almost like simple syrup. Syrup will become darker later in the tapping season.
Native Americans were collecting maple sap as early as 1609!
A tree can produce between 6-10 gallons of sap each season.
Pure maple syrup is packed with nutrients including riboflavin, manganese, zinc, magnesium, calcium and potassium. It has a higher antioxidant value than cantaloupe and tomatoes!
We started by tapping 4 trees this year. If the trunk is larger than 10" in diameter, you can have 2 taps. Our trees are in groups that share a single trunk, so I'm able to tap more in a single spot. They have all been producing very different amounts, one tree is really pumping while one is barely dripping! A little bit of trial and error here! This entire year is a learning process for us to say the least.
I emptied our tap buckets into 5 gallon buckets that were stored in the shade behind our house. When it came time to cook up the first batch, I took the sap to my parents house to cook it in a pot over a small fire in their yard. My dad was kind enough to split some wood to use but the wood was wet and it was hard to keep the fire hot enough for the sap to stay boiling. It took around 8 hours to boil down 6 gallons of sap and I would not recommend this way! The 6 gallons of sap yielded 3/4 pint of syrup.
The key is to have a large surface area to evaporate as much water from the sap as possible. The easiest option is to use hotel pans over a large hot fire. I looked up a few different types of evaporators and jokingly showed a picture of own of them to my brother and asked if he could help me build one. Well, he said yes and did it pretty quick! I ordered a camp stove kit from amazon for around $70. It came with a cast iron door, feet and a chimney collar that you attach to a 55 gallon steel drum.
I ordered some full size 4 1/2" deep 25 gauge stainless steel hotel pans online. A thicker gauge will help prevent the pans from flexing over the high heat. Once the pans came in, Derrick was able to cut the sections from the top of the barrel for the pans to sit in. It may not be some fancy expensive evaporator but it works AMAZING!
I keep around 2" of sap boiling in the pans and add a little at a time slowly to keep the boil going. Towards the end, I transfer all of the sap to one pan and boil it down until it is a deep golden color. It's then ready to be pulled off, filtered and finished off inside over the stove. I stored all of the boiled down sap in the fridge and boiled it all together at the end of the season to make one big batch of syrup that can be bottled. It's easier to do it all at once than in small batches at this point. Things may change in the future depending on how far we expand this little adventure!
Once all of my sap was boiled down over 2 different batches, I finally combined what I had been storing in the fridge into one pot for the final boil before bottling. This is the most critical part....watching, waiting and testing the syrup for the right temperature and consistency. The syrup is finished at 7º above the boiling point of water which would be 219º F. I used a digital thermometer to keep a close eye on the syrup as it was boiling. Once it hits around 215º F, the temperature starts to rise very quickly and its very easy to burn it at this point. This is where a hydrometer comes into play. A hydrometer measures the the amount of sugar in a liquid. Even though the temperature might be 219º F, the sugar content might not be high enough for it to be actual syrup consistency. Pure maple syrup is a little more on the watery side than factory produced syrup thats made with corn syrup and maple flavoring (do your self a favor and buy the real deal, its worth every penny!).
Once the temperature hit 219º F, I started checking the syrup with a hydrometer. At first I thought the hydrometer was broken becuase even at 219º, it still sunk to the bottom. I got so nervous in fact, I pulled the syrup off, filtered it, and bottled half of it. I decided to give the hydrometer another run and boil the remaining syrup a little more. I tested at every degree until it hit 223º and it actually worked!
The hydrometer has a Brix scale, which is the percentage of sugar in the liquid. When the liquid is boiling at 209º or higher the brix will be 60 which is what you see in the picture. The boiling temperature also depends heavily on the atmospheric pressure in the air which can vary day to day. (Did I lose you with all of this science talk? Don't worry I was just as confused!) The standard density for maple syrup is measured at 66.9 Brix, which can be read when the syrup cools down to 60-70º.
I'm still learning about the Brix deal. If anyone knows me they know math and numbers are not my strong point! I have to experience it to get it. But I will tell you, a hydrometer takes a lot of the guesswork out if you are trying to do this off of temperature alone. I'm also treating the hydrometer as if it is a newborn baby because of how fragile and thin the glass is.
After the syrup has reached the correct density, I let it cool for a few minutes before pouring it through a double lined filter to eliminate any last minerals. If you skip this step (which is totally fine if you do) your syrup with just end up a little more cloudy. Totally still edible, it is just sugar sand floating about. This happened on my remaining syrup that I had put back to boil down further. It had already been through 2 filtering processes so I skipped it after the boil and ended up with a little cloudiness at the bottom of my bottles.
Here she blows! Liquid gold in all her glory.
After bottling and labeling, and admiring all of the hard work it took to get this bottle of tree pee, I cleaned up the kitchen (which was an absolute sticky mess) and closed up shop until next year.
I was very hopeful that my taps would hold out one more week for the perfect temperatures we will be getting this upcoming weekend, but unfortunately the season is over. I checked my taps yesterday and a few not so good signs.
The trees have budded after 2 days, theres a tiny amount of sap in the bucket and its yellow. Sap should be clear like water, once it is yellow it becomes bitter and is no bueno. At this point the sap flow slows way down and you can kiss maple season goodbye.
For all of you still wondering why real maple syrup costs so much money, this is a ton of work! Collecting the sap in 5 gallon buckets and carrying them by hand across our property wasn't fun. Depending on the weather you could have little to no sap one day and almost be overflowing the next. You have to have a place to keep it cold to prevent spoiling, which means you also need to be boiling it down pretty often. In my case boiling was once a week. I don't have a covered area or a "sugar shack" to cook my sap down so I stood outside in the wind on a few 20º days, literally watching water boil for hours on end. It wasn't ideal, but I worked with what I had. After boiling down to a certain point, it has to be filtered and finished off inside which could also take hours. Is it worth it? YES. 1,000 times YES.
Needless to say this was a very fun experiment and newfound hobby that I'm now totally addicted to and obsessed with! I learned way more about maple syrup than I had ever imagined. Watching people taste it (especially during the cooking process) is the most rewarding. I will be expanding next year and hope to have plenty of syrup to sell! It was super fun to share my experience and process with you and I hope you were able to take something away from this article! Whether it be a newfound respect for maple syrup and what it takes to make it, or some fun facts you didn't know!
One more quick mention! If you are interested in taking on this hobby, the Facebook group Michigan Maple Syrup Cookers has been an incredible resource! Everyone has been so helpful, and it is super fun seeing everyone else's setup and process! There are so many different ways to go about this using what you have and I recommend giving it a try!
If you're not following on Instagram, I recommend that too!
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