Lessons learned: Maple syrup

Here’s a quick recap of the lessons I learned during our first year of maple tree tapping and maple syrup production. It’s my to-do list for next January.

  • Be prepared. I need to make sure I have everything I’ll need lined up ahead of time, cleaned, sanitized, and ready to go early. I’m pretty sure we missed a week, possibly two, of the sap run this year. Better to be ready in January.
  • I need to have two or three dedicated maple sap buckets, with airtight lids and at least 1/2 gallon markings, to hold at least a couple days worth of sap.
  • A hydrometer is a must. Trying to accurately measure the temperature of a small quantity of maple syrup is hard. The temperatures also seem to be a terrible way to estimate sugar content. I bought a hydrometer this year, and for next year I’ll have a testing cup on hand as well.
  • For the sap, a refractometer would be helpful to know the sugar content so I know what to expect when boiling it. Not essential, but they’re cheap so I’ll probably buy one.
  • Have plenty of propane; make sure there are at least two full tanks on hand.
  • Have bottles and labels on hand for the finished product.
  • More spiles and bags, unless I switch to plastic drip lines and containers on the ground (which would probably be better anyway).
  • A boiling pan with more surface area would be better. I’ve got a year to explore better evaporating options. I don’t want to go overboard, but maybe there’s a better option.
  • I may set up a small RO system. It would cost some to set up, but would greatly reduce the boiling time and save on propane. I’ve got time to investigate and decide whether I want to set one up. Next year I’ll have at least 6 taps going in 6 trees — four here, two at a rental house we own.

Our first batch of maple syrup!

After all the “learning curve” experiences over the past couple of weeks, we’ve finally got our first batch ready to bottle.

Using the turkey fryer to boil down the sap was a big step. There are faster and better ways, but this is what is practical right now. Ideally I’d like to have a 2′ square or 2 x 3 syrup pan, but that’s a purpose-specific item that would cost a lot and take up a lot of room for eleven-plus months of the year. The fryer does a passable job, and I’ve learned to just let it go until the sap is very nearly syrup before finishing it on the stove. The first time I emptied the stock pot there was still too much water; it took a couple of hours to boil down on the stove. Last night I brought in the second run; it was very close to being “done” when I poured it into the pan.

After sorting through our thermometers, I found one digital kitchen thermometer that reads in half-degree increments well past the point where our maple sugar would turn into maple candy. That has made the process so much easier and better. I can reliably get the temperature right where it needs to be. Unfortunately, I’m still not sure whether I’ve got it right. The resulting syrup seemed a bit thin to me. I ordered a maple syrup hydrometer from Amazon (they’re not expensive). Once it arrived, it confirmed my suspicion that the sugar content was a little low. I had to boil it a few more minutes, bringing the temperature up to 221 F. The next step will be to bottle the 2 quarts we have finished.

We have far more syrup than I ever imagined we’d get. Remember, when I started this I figured maybe I’d get enough maple syrup to anoint a stack or two of pancakes. Well, we’ve got about half a gallon now and there will be more. We’ve got nothing to store it in long term, and I’d like to share some with friends and family. Half a gallon is way more syrup than we’d use in a year. I ordered some maple syrup bottles and am working on ideas for a label to stick on them. Until then… yeah, I got impatient and bottled the first batch in these flask-shaped 375 ml bottles. As I write this they’re sitting in a pan pasteurizing before I put the caps on.

Pasteurizing the bottles before capping
Cooling down while I ponder how to label the bottles

More Maple Madness

Wow, what a journey this has been.

When I started this my goal was just to try it out and see if it would even be possible to get a little bit of syrup from our two larger trees. I was not prepared for what’s happened, even on this tiny, tiny scale. Not to give away the ending, but If I had known what would happen, I’d have prepared better. I’d have had multiple buckets marked in 1 gallon or maybe even 1 quart increments. I’d have filled both of my propane cylinders. I’d have picked up the propane turkey fryer from my son and had it scrubbed out. I’d have probably done the tapping a little differently.

When the weather is warm, I’ve been getting an average of 5-6 gallons of sap per day from the two trees. I can’t say exasperated much, because I’ve been emptying the sap collection bags at varying levels of fullness. My buckets aren’t marked, and sometimes I just empty them directly into the stock pot. The message here is that I’ve gotten a LOT of sap, relative to the amount I thought I’d see, and it’s gone on for days longer that I expected. As I write this it’s 27 degrees F (that’s 2.78 C for my friends outside the US), well below freezing, and it’s overcast. The collection bags were emptied late yesterday; I’ll still have to go empty them again this afternoon. That will be another five gallons or so. But I’m getting ahead of myself; let’s back up to this past weekend.

In my last post, I described my efforts to boil the sap down to make syrup. I can tell you a few things that simply won’t work. Boiling sap on your stove — no, don’t bother trying. Sure, it will work. Eventually. Your house will be a rainforest. We’ve got a good sized place and you could tell the humidity was getting higher, even with the vent hood turned on. And that electric roaster pan? Nope. It heats from the sides, not the bottom, so you can pour in 4-1/2 gallons… and it will steam, but not boil.

I bought a turkey fryer a couple of years back. I’ve never used it myself; it’s lived over at my son’s house where it’s been used to fry a few turkeys. It’s got a stock pot that will hold about 7 gallons (call it 26 liters) and a propane burner. Pete dropped it off for me. That took a little scrubbing to get completely clean and ready for sap duty. As I now had about 8 or 9 gallons of sap, I filled it and fired it up. As the level dropped during the day I’d add in more sap. Seven hours later I’d reduced the first batch down to less than a gallon and brought it inside to finish — it was late and dark, and I’d been having to run out every 13 minutes all day and reset the 15 minute automatic shut-off timer. This was way, way too labor intensive. And how much sap was that? I have no idea. If I were to guess I’d say maybe 9 gallons or so. Maybe more, maybe less, I have no way to keep track.

The turkey fryer, full of fresh sap and some partially boiled sap

Once inside on the stove, it took another couple hours to get to the point where the candy thermometer indicated (to the best of its very limited ability) that we might have maple syrup. Unfortunately it’s got nowhere near the resolution I need to see when the boiling temperature reaches 217 degrees. Why 217? Well, at our elevation, water boils at 209.5 F, give or take half a degree based on barometric pressure, so I add 7.5 to that to hit 66% or a little better sugar concentration. It’s an approximation (more on that later).

It’s getting closer to being syrup, and starting to take on that beautiful color!
The first batch… chapter one.

I finally called it quits when things were looking and feeling like syrup. It bugged me, though, that I didn’t really know for sure how close I was. After cooling it was apparent that the “syrup” was a little thin, and a little light in the rich flavor you’d expect. The next morning Lisa turned the burner on low heat and, not knowing any better, told me about it several minutes later. By the time I got it shut off, it was about to boil over. What we ended up with completely crystallized into a solid tan block of maple sugar once it cooled off. I didn’t take a picture of that, but it was a touch over half a liter of solid maple sugar.

Fortunately all was not lost… more to come.

Tapping maple trees for syrup

This year I decided to try something I’d been half-jokingly threatening to do for several years. Namely, tap the two big maple trees in my back yard and gather sap to make maple syrup.

I wasn’t expecting this to work well. They’re not sugar maples, for starters; they’re silver maples. Not even the second or third choice for syrup production. They’re big enough, though, and I finally decided to spend a few bucks on some equipment to give it a try. I figured, best case, maybe it would be a little bit of fun and maybe we’d end up with enough maple syrup for a stack of pancakes.

To do this you need a few items. First, you need spiles. These are the taps that get tapped into shallow holes drilled in the tree trunk. Not wanting to spend a big chunk of money on specialized buckets and other stuff that would be of limited or no use and would need to be stored 11 months of the year, I went with some plastic spiles and a bag collection system. The kit came with the proper size drill bit, three spiles, three PVC bag hangers, and three 4-gallon plastic bags. I thought the bags were pretty ambitious.

You’re supposed to start this as soon as the weather starts getting above freezing during the day, and drops below freezing at night. I didn’t anticipate things getting as warm as soon as they did, so I was a week or two late getting the supplies ordered. I honestly figured I’d probably missed the window to do this, but decided to give it a shot anyway. Once I had everything together I headed out to the back yard with my cordless drill, the spiles, a small mallet, and the collection bags. I picked the larger of the two trees to start with.

I’d already marked the drill bit with some tape at the proper depth, about 2”. I drilled the first hole on the south side of the tree (happily facing the house) and gently tapped the first of the spiles in place. I noticed that it immediately started dripping clear, watery sap. That surprised me. I hung the bag on it, and saw it was dripping regularly – about once per second or so.

A tree with spile and collection bag attached. The liquid in the bag is about 15 minutes worth of sap.

Moving to the other tree, I repeated the process there. This time the tap started dripping even faster, nearly twice a second. This was looking much better than I ever thought it would. Since I had a third collection setup and the first tree is actually large enough (according to my online research) to support as many as three taps, I started a second one about a quarter of the way around the trunk from the first one. All three were happily dripping away, much to my surprise.

I went back in, but couldn’t help look out the window often to check on the progress of our little maple syrup production line. I saw the bags show a little collected liquid in the bottom. Then it looked like there was about a cup in each bag, with the tree on the left (west) side outpacing the other one. Then it looked like maybe a pint. I checked often throughout the afternoon, amazed at the rate at which the sap was running out of those trees. By 5 PM, I decided I’d empty the bags. Much to my delight and amazement, I got about three gallons of sap total. Before we went to bed I’d collected another gallon or more.

Both trees tapped. The tree nearest the camera has a second tap on the other side of the trunk.

Maple sap is clear and looks like plain water. The sugar concentration, depending on several factors, can range from 1 to 3 percent sugar. I tried a little sip; it’s very, very slightly sweet. Maple syrup is, by definition, 66% sugar. To get from sap to syrup takes a lot of evaporation by boiling. You’ve got to boil 5 gallons of sap down to about a pint of syrup… or even less. Everyone will tell you this needs to be done outside. Needless to say, I tried it in the kitchen. A couple of hours of boiling sap down in a stock pot got me maybe 1/10 of the way there or less, but at least the sap – reduced by about half – actually tasted a little sweet. The humidity, however, was rising in the house to the point that I decided enough was enough and shut off the burner.

Maple sap boiling on the cooktop

That was yesterday. Today was overcast, colder, and raining. We probably got another gallon or so from the collection bags, maybe a bit more. Combined with yesterday’s collection and after the boiling, there was about 4-1/2 gallons or so. Not bad for the first try, started late in a suburban back yard. Being struck with what seemed like a good idea, I brought the 18 quart roaster oven up from the basement and filled it with sap, then turned it on and let it cook for a few hours. Unfortunately it’s just not up to the task of boiling that much liquid with the lid off. I can’t see the point to trying it with the lid on, since the whole point is to reduce the sap by evaporation. On the bright side, I figure half an hour at 180 degrees will kill off any bacteria and hopefully render the sap good for a couple more days until I can set up the propane turkey fryer for some serious boiling. I’m also hopeful tater can get another few gallons of sap before it’s time to call it quits until next February.

More to come…