How To Tap Maple Trees

Excerpted from Tap My Trees

Tapping maple trees for maple syrup
Have you ever glanced at the monstrous maple trees growing on your property and thought, someday, I’m going to tap those trees and make syrup!

Well, this could be that very day! If you have a maple tree suitable for tapping, some basic supplies, and a free weekend, you could be enjoying your own homemade syrup sooner than you think! As with any endeavor, preparation is critical.

It is important you are prepared with the knowledge of which trees in your yard are maples and that you have the necessary equipment. Do this before the sap starts to flow (sap flow typically begins in February or March).

The most commonly tapped maple trees are Sugar, Black, Red, and Silver Maples.

Sap flows when day time temperatures rise above freezing and night time temperatures fall below freezing.

  When to Tap the Tree

Maple Tree Tapping Equipment
Bucket with lids: Used to collect the sap as it drips from the spile.
Drill bit: Either a 5/16 or 7/16 drill bit is used to drill the tap hole into your maple tree.
Spile: The tap that is inserted into the drilled hole to transfer sap into the bucket.
Hook: Hooks are attached to the spile and used to hang the bucket.
Cheesecloth: Used to filter any solids such as pieces of bark when transferring sap from the collection bucket to a storage container.
Storage container: Food grade storage containers are used to store your collected sap.
Digital Thermometer: Measure and control sap temperature during boiling.

Generally the sap starts to flow between mid-February and mid-March. The exact time of year depends upon where you live and weather conditions. Sap flows when daytime temperatures rise above freezing (32° F/ 0° C) and nighttime temperatures fall below freezing. The rising temperature creates pressure in the tree generating the sap flow. This is basically a transfer of the sap from the tree above the ground and the root system below the ground. The sap generally flows for 4 to 6 weeks, with the best sap produced early on in the sap-flowing season.

  Step-by-step Instructions

1. Clean Equipment

Clean spiles bucket, and lids prior to use each season. With a mixture of 1 part unscented household bleach to 20 parts clean water, use a brush or cloth to scrub your supplies. Triple rinse all with hot water.

2. Tap the Tree

The height of the tap hole should be at a height that is convenient for you and allows easy collection. A height of about 3 feet is recommended. If the tree has been tapped in previous seasons, do not tap within 6 inches of the former tap hole. Ideally, the tap hole should be above a large root or below a large branch on the south side of the tree. If more than one tap is to be placed in the same tree, distribute the tap holes around the circumference of the tree. Be sure to avoid any damaged area of the tree.

3. Drill the Tap Hole

Maple tree sap spile.
Maple tree sap spile.

The size of the drill bit to be used is dependent on the type of spile you are using. Most spiles require either a 7/16 or 5/16 bit. Drill a hole 2 to 2½ inches deep. It may be helpful to wrap a piece of tape around the drill bit 2½ inches from the tip to use as a guide. Drill at a slight upward angle to facilitate downward flow of sap from the hole. The shavings from the drilled tap hole should be light brown, indicating healthy sapwood. If the shavings are dark brown, drill another hole in a different location.

4. Inserting the Spike

Clear any wood shavings from the edge of the hole. Insert the spile into the loop on the hook (hook facing outward), and then insert the spile into the tap hole. Gently tap the spile into the tree with a hammer (do not pound the spile into the tree, as this may cause the wood to split). If the sap is flowing, you should immediately see sap dripping from the spile.

5. Hang the Bucket and Attach the Lid

Hang the bucket by inserting the hook into the hole on the rim of the bucket. Attach the lid to the spile by inserting the metal wire into the double holes on the spile.

6. Storing the Sap

Hanging the bucket from the spile hook.
Hanging the bucket.

Use only food grade containers to store your collected sap. The sap should be stored at a temperature of 38 degrees F or colder, used within 7 days of collection and boiled prior to use to eliminate any possible bacteria growth. If there is still snow on the ground, you may keep the storage containers outside, located in the shade, and packed with snow. You can also store the sap in your refrigerator, or for longer term storage, in your freezer. Remember that sap is like milk, it will spoil quickly if not kept cold.

6. Process the Sap Into Maple Syrup

Treat sap like any other nutrient taken directly from nature to include in your diet. When you pick berries in a field, they can be eaten directly from the bush; however, it is generally a good idea to wash them first. Many drink sap straight from the collection bucket, but it is highly recommended you boil your sap prior to any use to kill bacteria that may be present. To effectively kill bacteria, bring the sap to a rolling boil and then let it boil one additional minute.

The most common use of maple sap is to process it into maple syrup. To make maple syrup, the excess water is boiled from the sap. It takes 40 parts maple sap to make 1 part maple syrup (10 gallons sap to make 1 quart syrup). Because of the large quantity of steam generated by boiling sap, it is not recommended to boil indoors. If you do decide to boil the sap indoors, make only small batches and ensure good ventilation (and keep an eye that your wallpaper does not peel off the walls). If you boil outdoors, make certain you are in compliance with any local regulations. Below is one method for boiling your sap.

7. Filtering the Sap

Finishing boil: Boil the filtered sap to 219°F.
Finishing boil: Boil the
filtered sap to 219°F.

Filter the sap to remove any residue that has accumulated during the initial boiling phase. This will help to remove larger residue that remained in the sap from the initial boiling. Use cheesecloth or a syrup filter and position it in a filter stand or strainer.

8. Boiling the Sap

Once the sap is filtered, put it into the large pot and start up the stove and set it to a medium heat to get the sap boiling again. Insert your candy thermometer or digital thermometer so that the bulb is submerged in the sap, but not touching the bottom of the pot.

Maple syrup boils at a higher temperature than water due to its sugar content. Water boils at 212°F, while maple syrup boils at 219° F. For this reason, you want to continue boiling your sap until it reaches a temperature of 219° F.

A couple of clues will occur as you approach the time when the maple syrup is done. You will notice that the consistency of the syrup seems to change as you approach the 219°F temperature.

9. Filtering the Syrup

Filtering maple syrup.
Filtering maple syrup.

A small amount of sediment will be present in your syrup. This can be filtered out of your sap using a food grade filter. A coffee filter is suitable to filter a small amount of sap at a time. After letting the syrup cool, pour a small amount into a coffee filter, collect the top ends of the filter into a bunch, and press the syrup through the filter into a clean container (such as a measuring cup). Depending upon how much syrup is produced, this will need to be repeated several times (using a new filter each time). For larger batches, a wool or orlon filter can be used. You can also remove the sediment by allowing the syrup to stand overnight in the refrigerator, letting the sediment settle to the bottom.

10. Bottling the Syrup

Sterilize a bottle and cap (or multiple bottles and caps depending upon how much syrup you have produced) in boiling water. Pour the sediment free syrup into the bottle, cap, and refrigerate. Your refrigerated syrup should be used within 2 months. Syrup can also be frozen (in a freezer safe container) to extend shelf life.

  Maple Tree Species

Sugar Maple

 Tree: The Sugar Maple grows to approximately 100 feet tall. Fall color ranges from bright yellow, orange, to a fluorescent red-orange. Can live over 200 years.

 Bark: The bark on young trees is dark grey. On mature trees, the bark is dark brown and has developed vertical grooves and ridges.

 Leaf: The leaf is rounded at the base, extending to generally 5 lobes without fine teeth (compared to Red and Silver Maples). The color is bright green, with a paler green underside.

 Fruit: The seeds join each other in a straight line, while the wings are separated by approximately 60 degrees. Each winged seed is about 1 inch long. The fruit matures in the fall.

 Twig/Bud: The twig is somewhat shiny, brown, and slender. This smooth twig generates a bud 1/4 to 3/8 inch long, conical, pointed, and brown in color.

Red Maple

 Tree: The Red Maple grows to 60 to 90 feet tall. The bright red fall color derives its name. Grows in both dry and wet soil conditions. Lives up to 150 years.

 Bark: The bark on young trees is light grey and smooth. On mature trees, the bark is darker, with red or black ridges and narrow, scaly plates.

 Leaf: The leaf is 2 to 6 inches wide, usually with 3 lobes. The margins of the leaf contain small, sharp teeth. The mature leaves are light green with a whitish underside.

 Fruit: The V-shaped, double-winged fruit develops in clusters, and is ½ to 1 inch long. The fruit matures in the spring (as opposed to the fall for a Sugar or Black Maple).

 Twig/Bud: The twig is slender, shiny, and reddish in color. Buds are blunt, clustered, and 1/8 to 1/4 inch long.

Silver Maple

 Tree: The Silver Maple grows to 70 to 100 feet tall. This tree has brittle wood and is commonly damaged in storms. Lifespan of 130 to 150 years.

 Bark: The bark on young trees is grey with a reddish tint. On mature trees, the long thin scaly plates produce a shaggy appearance. The color is reddish brown.

 Leaf: The leaf is 5 to 7 inches wide, with 5 lobes. The margins of the leaf contain fine teeth. The mature leaves are pale green with a silvery white underside (hence the name Silver Maple).

 Fruit: The double- winged fruit develops in clusters, and is 1½ to 2 inches long. Often one of the seeds is underdeveloped. The fruit matures in the spring.

 Twig/Bud: Similar to the Red Maple. When the twig is broken, a foul smell can be detected. Winter buds are slightly larger than the Red Maple.

Black Maple

 Tree: The Black Maple grows to approximately 100 feet tall. Fall color ranges from bright yellow, orange, or a red-orange. Can live over 200 years.

 Bark: The bark is similar to the Sugar Maple, but a bit darker and with deeper grooves.

 Leaf: Similar to the Sugar Maple, but with 3 lobes instead of 5. The leaf often appears to be drooping.

 Fruit: Similar to the Sugar Maple, with a slightly larger seed. The fruit matures in the fall.

 Twig/Bud: The twig is somewhat shiny, brown, and slender, with small warty growths. Older twigs will have a waxy coating. Buds are conical, pointed, brown in color, and often hairy.

Bees flying footer graphic