it's that magical time of year when SUGAR COMES OUT OF TREES. it's the end of winter, when we are all totally beaten down by the grey snowy tundra around us, when the first spring greens are still weeks, if not months, away, when THE TREES START MAKING SUGAR. this is proof that trees are our guardian angels and always have our backs.
the trees only have sap running for a very brief time of year. when it's warmer than freezing during the day, trees pump sap and sugars up their whole trunks to start getting powered back up from the spring. but when it's still freezing during the night, the trees have to pump all the water and sugar back down underground and store it in their roots, so that they don't freeze and explode. it's this up and down pumping action that moves the water and sugar (aka delicious nutritious maple sap) and makes the sap actually flow through the tree, which is why you can tap it out. thanks, trees!
the actual process is fairly simple. you wait until the right time of year (that's the trickiest part). [people say you only have abut 30 days until the tree heals over the hole you drill internally, but since that's about the length of the season, it's never been a problem for us.] you get a drill bit with a 7/16" (some people are now even using 5/16" bits) and drill in and slightly up into the tree, going only 2 to 2.5" in. you don't want to go too deep or you'll miss the good live layer where the sap is flowing.
then you put in a spile (one of the spouts that flows the sap out), hammering it in with a piece of wood (you don't want to smush the metal by using a hammer). then you can hang your bucket (we got extra frosting tubs that our grocery stores gave us for free-- talk about an upgrade) and wait for the drip! you want to make sure you have a lid of some kind, otherwise flies and squirrels might get in there.
we've noticed that there is a difference depending on which side you hang the bucket on the tree. the south side warms up first, and pumps strong, but the north side will produce longest at the end of the season.
a note on size: you don't want to tap your trees too early-- if they are smaller than 10" in diameter, let them grow more before putting a tap in. folks say you can put in about 1 tap every 10" you have in diameter- so a big mama maple might have two or even three buckets hanging!
then you need to gather and strain your sap, (gather whenever you have a lot of sap...), getting out all the tree bark and squirrel nibbles (or whole squirrels) that might have happened to fall in. we used to use cheesecloth, now we use an old pillowcase. strongly prefer the pillowcase. then you have the pure, clean sap, ready to either be consumed (we use the sap to brew our tea or coffee and it is AMAZING), or boiled down to syrup.
sap to syrup is a 40:1 ratio, so you have to boil a lot of water off to get syrup. there are some trees now bred to be "super sweet"-- around 7% sugar content i believe, so if you are a forward thinker and want to leave an awesome legacy sugar bush (the incredibly awesome term for a stand of sugar maple trees) behind, you could plant those.
generally you boil outside for the bulk of the process (folks say boiling inside will peel off your wallpaper so much water comes out). we did boil inside one year, and our walls and ceilings had rivulets of sap for ages. so boil outside-- your boiling set up can be as high tech as a super sleek evaporator set up, or as basic as a pot over a fire (but then you should expect it to taste strongly of smoke). this year we didn't have a woodstove for outside to use, so we borrowed a deep fryer stand from a friend and hooked a propane tank up to it. you pour in the sap and boil it down all day, and it will change color and burble intoxicatingly.
when it gets low, you can bring it in to the house and boil it on the stove. you need to bring it to 219 degrees F (so you'll need a candy thermometer). at 219 it is syrup, and then stable. if you bring it hotter, it will turn to candy, and if you leave it lower and watery, it can mold. it's a fine science-- many times i have heated slightly too much and had jars with crystallization on the bottom.
we don't do actual canning or bottling of the syrup, we just clean jars, pour in the syrup, and keep it in the fridge. it keeps forever, but it's always eaten before then.
as you can see from the above picture, the color (and flavor) shift dramatically over the season, there is the lightest which comes first, and it darkens over the season. we did a tasting last year of syrups made across the season, and each had our own preferences. it certainly made us laugh that any of the syrups are sold as "fancy" or "grade b". all delicious and different.
maple syrup not only is a local source of sugar for us new englanders, but it contains health benefits-- trace minerals that the tree roots bring up that we don't normally get in our diets. so, so many thanks for the trees!