Maple Sugaring Part 1: Getting Started

Folks around here can look to many different signs as the first harbinger of spring.  It could be the first few red-winged blackbirds flying into the marshes after spending the winter in warmer climes.  To some, it is the first meal of wild leeks or fiddlehead ferns.  In my opinion, there is no sign of spring more true than when the days rise above freezing while the nights fall back below and the sap starts running.  Sugars that have been stored over winter in the tree’s roots are carried up in the sap through the trunks, branches, and twigs, eventually providing energy to the buds so that they may produce leaves.  Without fresh green leaves, there would be no spring.   The sap run is the forest taking a good yawn and stretch after a long winter’s nap, readying itself for the flurry of bright green growth to come.

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is the most common tree tapped for the purposes of making syrup.  I have one healthy sugar maple in my back yard that I have tapped for three years now.  Every year it has produced well, allowing me to boil down about one quart of syrup each year.  I also have a very large silver maple (Acer saccharinum) that I have tapped for the first time this year.  Sugar maples have an average of 2% sugar content in their sap while silver maples have an average of 1.7%.  Three tenths of a percentage point is not enough to deter me.  Another member of the maple family,

Silver maple with metal spile
Silver maple with  metal spile

boxelder (Acer negundo), has an even lower sugar content, but this year I tapped one of those too.  Boiling the sap from each species in separate batches, I will conduct a taste test at the end of the sugaring season.  So far the sugar and silver maples look nearly identical, while the boxelder syrup is much lighter in color, almost white – supposedly .  Other species that can be tapped for syrup production include: red maple (Acer rubrum), paper birch (Betula papyrifera), yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis), black birch (Betula lenta), black walnut (Juglans nigra), butternut (Juglans cinerea), and shagbark hickory (Carya ovata).  Of these, I’ve only had hickory syrup.  It was much lighter in color and taste than maple syrup but equally delicious.

Many people may be intimidated by the prospect of tapping their backyard trees.  Don’t be.  It is only as difficult as you make it.  It is true that it takes 40 gallons of raw sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.  My one tap in our sugar maple can produce 10 to 20 gallons of sap each year.  I may not meet all of my family’s syrup consumption from this one tree, but the syrup that I do produce is much more enjoyable than store bought because there is a personal connection.  That sugar came from my back yard.

Also, who says that you have to make syrup?  Maple sap has many different uses.  In my  previous post, I used it to cook up some chicken legs.  Just this evening, I boiled someMaple Bratwurst bratwurst in some partially reduce silver maple sap, allowing the sap to cook down completely.  This not only infused the brats with the mapley goodness, but also coated them in a pleasantly sticky maple glaze.  You could even drink the sap without processing  it at all.  In fact, this is quickly becoming one of the latest health food (drink) crazes, with canned sap being sold in most grocery stores.

A word of caution: maple sap can serve as a natural laxative, especially when consumed in large quantities.  The first time that I ever tapped a tree, I tapped 3 trees with a couple of friends for fun.  We were just going to boil the sap down over a campfire.  The three trees that we tapped were more productive than we expected and we quickly became overrun with sap.  Every night after hours boiling in a small cast iron dutch oven, we ended up storing gallons of left over sap in empty pickle jars which were then stuffed into the communal refrigerator.  We drank nothing but sap for days on end.  We drank sap until the smell of maple syrup oozed from our pores.   We spent an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom.  I only have the occasional glass of sap now, but don’t let my experience stop you from consuming your own maple sap straight from the tree.  Everything in moderation.

Start up equipment:

Aside from a tree or two, you will also need a drill, a spile, some sort of receptacle for catching and holding the sap once it drips from the spile, and a pot for boiling the sap in on the stovetop.  Big time operations nowadays use a complicated network of rubber tubing that all drains down to a large catchment that is then hauled away to the evaporator.  A metal bucket will do just fine for our purposes.  You can get sap buckets at most hardware or lawn and garden stores this time of year.  In a pinch, a clean empty milk jug will work.

Spiles are what you pound into the holes that you drill in the tree.  They have a hole at either end and guide the sap down into your bucket.  Without a spile, the sap would just run down the side of the tree.  You can purchase metal spiles at the same locations that sell buckets.  I found some in an antique store for 10 cents a piece.  For the really old school sugaring fans out there, you can make your own spiles by taking a cutting from either a staghorn sumac tree or from an elderberry bush.  Both of these have a soft pith that is easily pushed out with a bamboo skewer, leaving a hollow tube perfect for guiding the sap into your buckets.  The first picture below is an example of an elderberry spile that the Man Cub and I made when we tapped our neighbor’s boxelder tree.  The second photo is of a staghorn sumac spile that has been whittled down to fit the hole.26824241488_037c839842_o40653552832_de15790c7b_o


All members of the maple family grow in an opposite branching pattern.  This means Opposite branching sugar maplethat each non-terminal bud  (the bud at the end of a branch) has a partner growing on the opposite side of the branch.  You may be able to find examples where there is no twig on the other side but if you were to look closely, you would find a scar opposite of the mate-less twig where its partner previously grew.  The only trees with this opposite pattern are ash, dogwood, and horse chestnut.  Dogwoods species around here in Vermont don’t grow large enough to be confused with a mature maple and horse chestnuts are mostly grown ornamentally.  This leaves ash trees, which can be distinguished from maples by the diamond shaped pattern of their bark.

When trying to separate silver and red maples from sugars, there are a few features to

Silver Maple
Thin, flaky bark of silver maple

look for.  The easiest way to tell them apart is by looking at the leaf, which is rather useless during sugaring season when the trees are bare.  The next best thing is to examine the bark.  Sugar maples tend to have grayish brown barn that forms large vertical plates when mature.  Red maples can be similar in color but the plating of their bark tends to be thinner and more peely.  The bark of silver maples is a much lighter gray and has thinner plates that tend to flake off easily.  If you are still confused, look up at the buds.  I know that this may seem ridiculously difficult, but if you are only trying to distinguish sugar maples from silvers or reds, then it is actually rather simple.

Buds of silver maple are pointed and bullet shaped, whereas the buds of both silver and red maples are larger and more rounded.  When looking up at the canopy of silvers and reds, you can actually see the ball shaped buds.  Take a look at the photo below.  The tree on the left is a silver maple and the tree on the right is a sugar maple.  Here you can clearly see the preponderance of large buds on the tree on the left while the tree on the right appears to have no buds at all upon first glance.  The same holds true when looking at red maples next to sugar maples.40707576291_3d76a297ba_o

Once you’ve found the tree that you’d like to tap, you will want to drill in 1.5 – 2 inches into the tree at a height of about 4 feet.  You can use an electric drill or an old school hand crank drill, just remember that the smaller the hole that you drill, the easier it will be for the tree to heal itself.  Most older metal spiles require a 7/16 size bit while some require only a 5/16 bit.  I recommend using the smaller size, which is all around better for the health of the tree, but if all you have are the older, larger spiles, then go ahead and use those.  In the photo below you can see where I tapped this sugar maple the previous two years using a 7/16 size bit.  The hole furthest to the right is from two years ago and has completely healed over.  Last year’s hole will likely finish healing during this year’s growing season.  You will also notice that each hole is at a slightly different height and at least 4 inches from the previous one.  Be sure to only tap trees at least 12 inches in diameter.  Many folks place two taps on trees larger than 18 inches in diameter and three on even larger trees.  I tend to only drill one tap per tree, no matter the size.  At my small scale, stove top operation, this gives me more than enough sap.Healing spile holesOnce you’ve selected your tree, drilled your hole, placed your spile, it is time to hang your bucket and wait.  Check your buckets at least once a day to avoid spoilage.  If left unattended for too long in warmer weather, your sap will turn cloudy and go rancid.  Raw sap can be stored in a refrigerated space for a day or two until you are ready to boil.  When it is still relatively cold during the day (mid to upper 30’s), I store my sap in a shady area inside a 30 gallon stainless steel garbage can.  Any food grade barrel would work as well.

This should be enough to get you started.  Part 2 will cover the ins and outs of turning your raw sap into syrup.

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