We've long checked out maple trees in our friend's yards and thought, "We should tap that." When we moved into our home, we looked at the tree in front of our house and thought, "We should tap that." Jokingly, sort of, because the tree isn't technically on our property. It's a city-owned street tree, tucked on that small space of grass between the sidewalk and the road. But it's full of nourishing (?) sap! One thing led to another, we bought this tree tapping kit and found ourselves standing out front of our home in February tapping that maple tree. To be clear, we live in a city. A small one, but still it's a city. I felt a little sheepish as we hung the metal bucket from our proud Norwegian maple. We hadn't even met many of our neighbors and here we were tapping a maple tree. Really cool, guys.
This year's tough winter was made gentler through the simple act of checking our maple buckets each evening. I'd put on my Hunter boots, winter jacket and Chris' big snowboarding mittens and shyly check the sap yield before bringing it back to our sophisticated storage container. We ended up collecting about 9-10 gallons of sap in our first season. After accounting for some loss (leaky bucket!), I'd say we boiled down 8-9 gallons altogether.
We didn't know what we were doing, and probably faked our way through many parts, as one should in such a situation. Knowing that 10 gallons of syrup would only yield around one quart of sap, we were in it just for some winter fun. We referred to these resources and tips:
- Tap My Trees (bought the kit and used their directions for the most part)
- Dianna's series on maple tapping for From Scratch Club
- This article, this article and this strange graphic novel-esque WikiHow
There's a lot out there about maple tapping, but not as much for really small scale operations. As in, one lone tree in front of your house. I'd like to share a few of our experiences in case you should get the maple sugaring bug and not find these questions answered elsewhere.
Find a fat maple tree. If you're just in it for fun, which is the only good reason to do it at all, it doesn't particularly matter which kind of maple tree you have. Ours turned out to be a Norwegian maple, and it was good to us.
If it's big enough, put two taps in it. We waited a week or two before adding the second tap and it dramatically increased our yield. If it's a particularly brutal winter, your sap might even freeze mid-stream. Delightful.
If you're using a somewhat public tree, one that's vulnerable to the whims of passersby, check and empty your buckets every night. Lessens the impact of any potential sabotage if only one day's yield is messed with versus a week.
Rig up a storage container. We emptied our daily sap into a giant orange-but-very-classy Gatorade cooler that we stored in our yard. For much of the winter it was plenty cold enough to keep our sap from spoilage and, in fact, some nights it was cold enough to freeze it a little bit. As it got warmer we packed snow around the cooler and then threw in a few ice-filled bottles to make sure the sap kept cool.
Figure out your boiling system. Our tiny maple sugaring operation involved two boils. We did one about 3 weeks in and then the other about 2-3 weeks later. Our set-up was basic: a Coleman camping stove, my giant waterbath canning stockpot and a good book. We hooked our old camping stove up to a larger propane tank and let 'er rip. (Note, to do this you'll probably need this connector.) This was completely sufficient for our ultra-small-scale operation. We boiled about 3 gallons the first time and maybe 5-6 the second time, which were low enough volumes to do all in one batch in my stockpot. I'd say the boils took 4-5 hours? I'm not completely sure, as the first one was chilly enough that I spent most of it hopping around our garage and running inside for coffee refills, and the second one was warm enough that I was outside soaking up the sun and reading most of the time. For both boils, once it got down to about an inch or so of sap/syrup, I brought the pot inside to finish boiling on the stove until syrupy. We used a thermometer and also our own eyeballs to tell when it was done. Remember, hot syrup is runnier than cold syrup so don't overdo or burn it.
The finishing touches. We strained the first batch with a few layers of cheesecloth and it was still pretty cloudy, so the second time around we used muslin and the result was much prettier. Our sap yielded about a pint and a half of syrup- just enough for a few pancake breakfasts!
The last thing you'll want to do is schedule an elaborate pancake breakfast and drench them in your homemade syrup. Don't skimp or save. Pour the golden elixir on! Bask in the glow of your very own homemade maple syrup. One thing is certain, after a season of tapping and boiling, you won't scoff at the market prices for maple syrup. It's worth every damn penny. If you want to save yourself the trouble, you can just buy a few cartons of maple water at Trader Joe's and pretend you got it from your street tree. Did you know maple water is the new thing? What a clever way around the long boiling process. We had some passersby stop to take photos and taste the sap and I absolutely loved it. Next winter I'm putting an informational sign on the tree. Free educational neighborhood fun.