DIY: Tap Maple Trees for Maple Syrup

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 tappable tree, 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.

Equipment to Tap Trees

Maple tree tap Buckets: Used to collect the sap as it drips from the spile.
Lids: Attached to the top of the bucket to prevent rain, snow, and foreign material from entering the bucket.
Drill Bit: Depending upon the type of spile used, either a 5/16 or 7/16 drill bit is used to drill the tap hole into your maple tree.
Spiles: The spile (or tap) is inserted into the drilled hole to transfer sap into the bucket.
Hooks: 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.
Pliers: Used to remove the tap from the tree once the sap season is over. Storage Containers: Food grade storage containers are used to store your collected sap. Clean plastic milk jugs or juice containers may be used. You can also use food grade 5 gallon buckets. Your local deli or donut shop may provide these free of charge as they often receive their ingredients in such containers.
Sap Processing Equipment: Depending upon how you decide to utilize your sap, additional equipment may be needed. For example, if you would like to make maple syrup, additional equipment is required. For small scale production, you can generally use items already available at home.

When to Tap the Tree

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 degrees Fahrenheit / 0 Celsius) 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.

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.

Tap the Tree

Maple tree tap 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.

Drill the Tap Hole

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 2 ½ inches deep. It may be helpful to wrap a piece of tape around the drill bit 2 ½ 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.

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.

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.

Storing the Sap

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.

Process the Sap Into Maple Syrup

Processing the maple syrup by boiling 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.

Boiling the Sap

Fill a flat pan or large pot (a “lobster” pot is used in this example) ¾ full with sap. Place the pot onto the heat source. Once the sap starts to boil down to ¼ – ½ the depth of the pot, add more sap, but try to maintain the boil. If the sap is boiling over the edges of the pot, a drop of vegetable oil or butter wiped onto the edge of the pot will reduce this.

The boiling sap will take on a golden color. Once the sap has “mostly” boiled down, but still has a very fluid texture, it is time to transfer the sap into a smaller pot. Once transferred to the smaller pot, the final boiling can be completed indoors. Continue to boil the sap until it takes on a consistency of syrup. One way to check for this is to dip a spoon into the sap / syrup – syrup will “stick” to the spoon as it runs off. It is important to watch the boiling sap very closely as it approaches syrup, since it is more likely to boil over at this point. If you have a candy thermometer, finish the boil when the temperature is 7 degrees F above the boiling point of water. Note that the boiling point of water differs based on your elevation.

Filtering the Sap

Bottle of 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.

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 – 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 rey or black ridges and narrow, scaly plates.

☆ Leaf: The leaf is 2 – 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 – 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—1/4 inch long.

Silver Maple

☆ Tree: The Silver Maple grows to 70 – 100 feet tall. This tree has brittle wood and is commonly damaged in storms. Lifespan of 130 – 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 – 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 1 ½ – 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.