Maple Sugaring on a Small Scale

Maple sugaring on a small scale — a sweet cure for cabin fever!

Over the past decade I have done some small scale maple sugaring. Growing up watching my father maple sugaring and helping him I guess it rubbed off on me. When I tell my friends what I’m up to I typically get a response like “that’s a lot of work” or “it takes too long and I can just go to the store and buy some.” Well, my response is that it is very rewarding and is a sweet cure for cabin fever. There’s nothing like walking in the woods and collecting those full sap buckets and smelling that sweet sap boiling down over a fire. I always involve my kids in the process to teach them about maple sugaring and enjoy family time together. Yes, there is no doubt it can be hard work, but it can be a relief from a long hard winter that doesn’t seem to end when it should.

Over the years I have learned that preparation can go a long way in being successful and creating as little back breaking work as possible. You don’t need a lot of maple trees to begin with and there are at least four species of maple trees that produce sap that can be tapped. When I talk to people who haven’t maple sugared before there is a misconception that I hear that you can only tap maple sugar trees. This is not true at all. Tree species identification is best done in the summer and fall when the leaves are still on the trees. Plan ahead if you can and identify and mark the trees you are going to tap and kudos to you if you get this done.

There have been a few years when I had a new property and I hadn’t identified the maples I was going to tap on the property ahead of time. No, I didn’t tap any oaks!! But I did tap a few maples that seemed slow to produce. Maples can be identified by their branches and there bark. Maples have opposite branches and with sugar maples the bark is deeply grooved and easily identified. Maple species other than sugar maple can be challenging to identify in the spring by the bark and branches and this is best done when there are leaves on the tree. Depending on what your expectations are you could have as few as four buckets and boil down enough sap in one run to get a half gallon of syrup if your buckets are all full. Keep in mind that typically the ratio is 40/1, that’s 40 gallons of sap for one gallon of syrup. So without a commercial evaporator to boil the sap down this proves to be the biggest and most time consuming part of maple syrup production.

Your equipment depends on your budget and your resources. I have seen some people use old food grade buckets and plastic taps with tubing. I still use the old galvanized buckets and metal taps because that is what I have and I got a good deal on them used years ago. If you’re starting from scratch the least expensive option in my opinion is using food grade buckets and plastic taps with tubing. Typically the plastic taps use a 5/16 inch drill and a standard drill bit will work fine. There is no need to buy a wood boring bit unless you are using an old hand crank drill.

In my experience the biggest challenges with small scale maple sugaring are boiling the sap down and collecting the sap. Sap collection in winters with deep snow can be difficult and back breaking at times but I have found a few ways to help that I can share. First off if you have trees that are near a driveway or roadway and can be accessed easily without tromping through deep snow then use those trees! I found that using a 35 gallon sprayer tank strapped on an ATV rack is the easiest way to collect sap when the snow isn’t too deep. The sprayer tank is useful because it has a large top that buckets can be dumped into and a ball valve on the bottom of the tank that can be used to drain the sap directly into your boiling pan or another bucket for handling. Another option is to use a ice fishing sled and strap large food grade buckets on it and tow it behind a snow machine or drag it tree to tree by hand. I recently built a sled to haul our sap in the deep snow using panels off an old dryer and fabricated a frame to hold a sprayer tank.

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Boiling down the sap can be in done many ways from using a turkey fryer burner and pot or pan on top of a wood stove. I have found that the least expensive vessel to use is a deep stainless steel restaurant warming pan.

20150311_175400   Typically these pans can be found at restaurant supply stores and have a decent surface area to boil the sap down quickly. Other options could be using a turkey frying pot or large stainless steel pots. If your budget permits then a commercial wood fired evaporator is best way to go and the most economical to operate. I would use caution when boiling down the sap inside a kitchen because it produces a lot of steam so make sure that you have good ventilation and open a window to remove some of the moisture. It’s always best to boil down outside if you can and finish boiling inside. Too much moisture inside can cause problems like pealing wall paper…yikes!! Another tip is to time your boil down rate so that you can make use of your time doing something else when you are boiling down the sap. Using a hotel pan I can typically boil down an 11/2 inches an hour. Keep watchfull eyes on your boil temperature using a good digital thermometer and when your boil temp is at 215 you are very near the finishing point. As sap boils down and the sugar increases the boiling point increases as well. Everyone has an opinion on this and the most popular one is that it is finished at 218 degrees. I say bah humbug! I keep boiling until at least 220 because I want super thick syrup. Watch it close and check it often, it can burn and boil over quickly. It’s best to use a smaller pot to do your finish boiling in. Thick syrup makes a great baste for a maple basted ham that is slap your grandma good!!

If I haven’t confused you enough with this information there is a really good website that has more detatiled technical information that is very useful. Here is the link:  www.tapmytrees.com

Hopefully you’ll find this information useful. I’m always looking for feedback hearing experiences other people have had. Feel free to email me anytime.  brian@nylandquest.com

Happy maple sugaring!

—- Brian Jackson