Two weeks ago, Dan and I tapped some of the maple trees around our place.
With a sharp, 7/16 of an inch bit, we drilled just over two inches into
each tree, about two feet above the ground. When the wood of the tree
curled out behind the drill bit, it was very wet. As soon as we hammered
the spout gently into the hole, the sap started flowing. Drip, drip,
drip... We had intercepted a small bit of the clear, slightly sweet sap
carrying stored sugars up from the roots to swell the buds.
This year we have a dozen taps in as many trees. Last year we had 10 taps
in eight trees. In Vermont, you're considered a professional if you have
one hundred taps. There are good reasons, however, for tapping just a few
Humans in this part of the world have taken advantage of the special
sweetness of maple sap for thousands of years. Like so many of the
activities which have sustained life in this region, tapping maple trees
and making syrup connect us directly to the weather, to other living things
and to the way this ecosystem works. We have learned to identify maple
trees and the sugar maples among them. Once the buckets are hung, we need
to visit them once or twice a day to see how they're doing and to collect
the sap. Weather conditions and temperature take on an added importance.
What a great time of year to go into the woods! There are so many wonderful
The sap starts flowing around the middle of February, as the days grow
longer. It flows best on warm days, after below-freezing nights and stops
following balmy nights like we had last week. Sap flow can stop and start
well into March, or it can end abruptly with an early, extended warm spell.
As the leaves of the trees begin to unfold, the sap takes on a bad taste.
When it comes to collecting sap, Mother Nature is the boss. It can only be
done on her schedule, which is, of course, different every year.
Maple sap is a very dilute sugar solution. It takes about 40 gallons to
make one gallon of syrup. The season's sap from an average tap boils down
to about one quart of syrup. Traditionally, boiling down is done over a
wood fire. It takes about a cord of wood to produce 25 gallons, which is
one reason why maple syrup is so expensive. On a small scale, your wood
stove or even the kitchen range can be used.
Only healthy maple trees should be tapped. Sugar maples usually produce
the best and the most sap, but we also tap our red maples. I even helped
high school students make delicious syrup from Norway maples along a Hamden
street. Any tree should be at least one foot in diameter before being
tapped, and at least 20 inches before two taps are used. With the added
stresses on trees today, it seems wise to give them a rest every other
The sun warms the south and east sides of the tree first, so that is where
the tap goes. Taps placed on the north side are slower to start, but may
flow a few days longer.
Once drilled, the hole is filled with a spout which also holds a bucket and
guides the sap into it. The manufactured metal spouts we bought at the
feed store are inexpensive and last for years. When I collected maple sap
several decades ago, I used elderberry stems with the center pushed out, a
technique borrowed from this region's Native Americans.
A good day's flow can be over two gallons per tap. We use recycled
five-gallon plastic buckets, with a hole drilled just under the rim to fit
the hook on the spouts. The students used recycled gallon cider jugs with
holes in the handle for the hook and the spout. These have to be emptied
at least twice on a good day.
We strain the sap into a stainless steel container for boiling on a fire
outside. The larger the surface area, the better. With a roaring fire and
a rolling boil, the water steams away. Once the sap has been reduced to
about 10 percent of the original volume, it's a good idea to move into the
kitchen for more controlled boiling as it finishes.
Earlier this week, we boiled down forty gallons of our sap overnight
outside. We're looking forward to covering delicious whole-grain pancakes
with this season's first maple syrup.
If you can't make some yourself, visit one of the area's sugar houses this
season to experience the taste of fresh, local maple syrup. The Department
of Agriculture in Hartford can provide a listing of Connecticut producers.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
(C)1998, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06478
Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT
certified organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban
agriculture projects in southern Connecticut and producing "The Politics of
Food" and "Living on the Earth" radio programs). Their collection of essays
Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful Future
is available from Bill Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14
postpaid. These essays first appeared on WSHU, public radio from
Fairfield, CT. New essays are posted weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing
and those since November 1995 are available there.
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