As I looked at the extended forecast this morning with its string of warm days and cold nights, the thought of maple sugaring leapt into my mind. I was not thinking about the big sugaring operations that feed most of my family’s maple sugar appetite, but rather of my own four taps. If you enjoy producing food from your own land, and you have any maple trees (or birch, some people say), you can have the satisfaction of producing your own syrup. While there are really fine pieces of equipment that you can buy if you get serious about this, you can try it out this season for less than ten dollars
If you have a maple tree with a trunk of more than 10 inches in diameter at your shoulder height, you can buy a tap and a 7/16 inch drill bit from the hardware store and collect some sap. While nothing beats a sugar maple for sap production, any maple will do. My first tap went into a Norway maple by the curb in my subdivision in Ann Arbor, Michigan back in 1999. I collected that sap in a sanitized milk jug, which drew quite a bit of interest from the neighbors. I boiled down the sap on my electric stove, which is not ideal, but I kept my vent fan on high and turned the stove off whenever I left the house. Before we began our sugaring adventure, my family and I visited some working taps for inspiration, and I read up on how to collect and process the sap properly. University of Maine has a wonderful, brief pamphlet discussing the basics. http://www.umext.maine.edu/onlinepubs/pdfpubs/7036.pdf
Yes, there are more elegant ways to do all of this, and you can watch the pros at work whether you have maple trees or not. I looked online at the Maple Sugar Producers Association of Connecticut website http://www.ctmaple.org and of course they are way ahead of me. They have been tapping trees and the sap is flowing! If you would like to visit their operations, Connecticut sugarhouses which are open to the public are listed in a guide that you can find on their site. Sap flow is weather dependent, so call ahead to make sure the fires will be burning.
I talked to Trish Bureau at Bureau’s Sugarhouse in Old Lyme, and they have put four hundred buckets up and have collected 100 gallons of sap. When asked her advice for someone who wants to try tapping a few trees she cautioned against cooking the sap down indoors. It takes many hours to boil the sap down, and it is easy for it to boil over, steam off wallpaper, and otherwise make trouble.
Charlie Boos of Mystic Natives, who has been tapping trees for years and has just had a new sugar house built, tells me that he has been surprised over the years in conversations about sugaring to find out how many people tap only a handful of trees. He advises beginners to start small and inexpensively. Milk jugs make fine buckets, coffee filters are effective for post-boil filtering, and recycled syrup bottles or canning jars work fine for bottling.
How can you know if you have maple trees? Their leaves are generally shaped like the one in the middle of the Canadian flag, with 3-5 lobes. You can find pictures of them online or in guidebooks, but by February they have already degraded, unlike the oak leaves that we still see everywhere on the ground. This time of year, it is very easy to see the maples’ distinctive branching pattern. New branches will bud out exactly opposite from each other rather than alternating their way up the older branches as they do on most trees.
Producing your own syrup, even if it is just a small quantity, gives a feeling of satisfaction similar to that of growing your own delicious produce in your own well-tended soil. It connects us with our bit of the ecosystem during a season when we often need a little nudge to get outdoors and enjoy ourselves.