When I was young, my family was treated to a can of maple syrup every spring. Our benefactor was an elderly man in our neighborhood that produced the syrupy treat by tapping numerous maple trees in a nearby wood. The treat was enjoyed by all of us, but the source was never investigated. I did not have the curious mind that I have now. Now that spring is arriving (slowly but surely), my curious mind is being tasked to find out how the sweet treat made it from the trees to our kitchen table.
February and March are the targeted months for tapping Maple trees to access the sap from their trunks. Maples are usually tapped beginning at 30 to 40 years of age. Each tree can support between one and three taps, depending on its trunk diameter.
In order to tap the tree, you will need to drill into the side of the maple tree about 2 inches deep, depending on how small your taps or spouts might be. Try to find a section of bark that is not damaged in any way and if there are previous tap holes in the tree, try to stay as far away from those as you can.
To collect the sap from the tree, simply hang a bucket on the tap even though the drops of sap will be little, it should start dripping quickly after tapping. Once the bucket is nearly full, pour the contents into a larger vat or collection bucket to take inside to start making syrup. You do not want to store your sap too long, however, as it can spoil.
Boiling the syrup is a tightly controlled process, which ensures appropriate sugar content. Syrup boiled too long will eventually crystallize, whereas under-boiled syrup will be watery, and will quickly spoil. As the sap is boiling, skim off any foam that might be on the top, removing it and any other particles that might be on the surface. Once the syrup reaches 220 degrees, either filter the maple syrup to remove any other waste that might have gotten into the sap or into the buckets as you collected the sap, or you can let the syrup completely cool as the sugar sand and other matter will settle to the bottle, allowing you to pour off the 'good' syrup into a clean container.
The specific weather conditions of the spring thaw period are critical in determining the length of the sugaring season. As the weather continues to warm, a maple tree's normal early spring biological process eventually alters the taste of the sap, making it unpalatable, perhaps due to an increase in amino acids. Seasons last for four to eight weeks, depending on the weather.
The average maple tree will produce 9 to 13 gallons of sap per season, and up to 3 gallons per day. Sap is not tapped at night because the temperature drop inhibits sap flow, although taps are typically left in place overnight.
It was with surprise that I learned of all the steps required for that elderly man to produce the maple syrup he proudly presented us with. He had a right to be proud, carrying on a tradition that has been around since the pioneer days when the Indians and the pioneers tapped the trees in the wilderness. My research makes me wish I had a maple tree to tap.