Reap the sweet rewards of making your own maple syrup from the trees in your backyard. With the practical advice and step-by-step instructions in Maple on Tap (Acres USA, 2013), you will master sugaring while saving valuable time and money. Author and experienced syrup-producer Rich Finzer shares how to tap a maple tree using his easy and successful collection system in this excerpt from chapter six, “Tapping and Sap Collection.”
You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Maple on Tap.
When tree-tapping time finally rolls around in your area, every amateur maple syrup maker has four challenges to combat: wind, inclement weather, insects and a big-time commitment dedicated to sap collecting. As I now begin my 22nd season of sugaring, I’m struck by how many mistakes I made when I first got started tapping maple trees, as well as how many time- and money-saving techniques I have now learned from these many years of experience. So here are a few important points to keep in mind when you’ve decided to take the plunge and “sugar off” for yourself.
How to Tap a Maple Tree: Sap Collection Systems
Every sap-collection system shares two common elements: tapping maple trees and collecting the sap. Everyone must tap his or her maples to release the sap, and there must be some kind of container to collect the sap as it drips out. But as a backyard or small-scale producer, you won’t be running a tubing network attached to a vacuum pump. Instead, you need to think about your sap collection on a small scale, with the emphasis on economy, simplicity and practicality. Your goal is to minimize or eliminate having to transfer sap from one container to another, and to accumulate enough to boil. So I am going to share four basic methods you might pursue, along with the costs, pitfalls and benefits associated with each. I’ll use our 24-tap operation as the measuring stick with which to compare all of the different collection systems.
Traditional sap collection is done using either metal spiles and 9-quart galvanized metal buckets or plastic taps and 3-gallon translucent plastic buckets. Both of these types require lids. For each tree tap, the metal buckets, lids and spiles will cost about $26 plus tax. For us, this was multiplied 24 times for an expense of about $650.
For the plastic equivalent, each rig will cost roughly $14 plus tax (or about $350 for our 24-tap operation).
On top of the collection equipment at the tree, you’ll also need to acquire a storage container to hold the collected sap until it’s time to boil. As an example, a 65-gallon plastic storage tank with threaded discharge valve will cost about $200. A much more reasonably priced alternative is to fit a plastic faucet (hose bib) onto a 35-gallon plastic garbage can. The garbage can and faucet setup will cost roughly $23. With either choice, it’s critical to raise the units on some cinder blocks so that you can slip a bucket underneath to draw off the sap when it’s time to boil. But either way, it’s an additional expense you’ll incur, and keep in mind that you still won’t have produced a single ounce of syrup yet. Aside from the cost, I want to share some thoughts about the drawbacks of using buckets.
• Neither type of bucket (plastic or metal) will prevent ants from entering and drowning in the sap.
• The arched lid on the traditional metal buckets allows rainwater, windblown debris and flies to enter and collect in the maple sap.
• When filled, both plastic and metal buckets are heavy enough to pull the tap out of the tree. When this happens, the bucket falls to the ground and spills the contents.
• From a distance, you can’t tell when a metal bucket is full, so someone will have to walk to each bucket and visually inspect them daily.
• You’ll require extra empty buckets to re-hang while transferring the sap to your storage container.
• Over time, metal spiles, buckets and lids will begin to rust.
A relatively recent innovation in sap collection consists of 2-gallon plastic sap bags suspended from rustproof aluminum taps. The cost for 24 of each plus the metal bag hangers is around $225. This is more economical than plastic buckets, but sap bags have their share of shortcomings too.
Using Sap Bags:
• The sap bag design won’t keep the ants out either.
• If the sap freezes and expands, the plastic is somewhat prone to tearing.
• When filled above two-thirds of their capacity, the bags may burst.
• At season end, it’s difficult to thoroughly dry the inside of the sap bags, inviting mildew formation to occur.
• You’ll require extra empty bags to re-hang while transferring sap to your storage container.
• Sap bags have a relatively low acquisition cost, but bags only last a few seasons before they have to be replaced.
• Metal bag hangers will begin to rust over time.
• On the positive side, the 5/16-inch aluminum taps make a smaller taphole, meaning that, at season’s end, the tree will heal faster.
• Aluminum taps won’t rust.
Plastic Milk Jugs
During the early 1980s, another tapping system briefly came into vogue for backyard syrup-makers. It involved cutting a hole into the shoulder of a 1-gallon plastic milk jug and hanging it on a metal spile. Based on 2011 prices, the total cost for a 24-tap operation using this collection system is slightly over $60. This is even more economical than the bag system, plus empty milk jugs are easy to accumulate (don’t forget to keep the lids). The system was touted as a method for making syrup as inexpensively as possible, which is a fine idea, up to a point. However, after Paulie and I tried using plastic milk jugs to collect sap for ourselves, we quickly discovered that the system lacked utility for several reasons.
Using Plastic Milk Jugs:
• Ants will still find their way into your plastic milk jug sap containers.
• With a hole cut into the side, the plastic milk jug can only hold about three quarts before sap begins dripping out.
• You’ll require extra empty milk jugs to re-hang while transferring sap to your storage container or you’ll need more uncut empties to store your sap until you boil.
• Because milk jugs have very limited volume, they require almost constant monitoring and tending.
• Milk jugs can be hung from either 7/16-inch steel spiles or 5/16-inch aluminum taps.
• Because milk jugs are essentially weightless, on windy days empty jugs tend to blow off the spile, wasting sap while you’re chasing them being blown down the road.
One common drawback to all of the collecting methods I’ve just outlined is that all of them involve transferring sap into some type of storage container. This means you’ve got to handle the sap more than once, and I guarantee you’ll spill some in the process (we always did).
5-Gallon Plastic Jugs
There’s one more strategy I have found that a backyard sugar maker can adopt to solve the sap collection challenge. You see, after chasing milk jugs, picking dead ants out of buckets and expanding my lexicon of profanity from using bags, I finally hit upon a sap-collection system that defeats the four enemies I referred to earlier — wind, weather, insects and a big-time commitment. This strategy is inexpensive to acquire and assemble, saves time, eliminates the need for a storage tank, and, best of all, keeps those persistent ants out! I call it the “half n’ half” method. It’s a hybrid of the milk jug system and the tubing network. Before I get into how to do it, here’s a little background information.
Years ago, while visiting a local fish and chips eatery, I noticed cases of empty cooking oil jugs piled by the dumpster, destined for recycling. Each held 5 gallons of oil and — best of all — each had a screw-on plastic lid. The restaurant manager was more than willing to let me take them, even offering to save more for me. Jackpot! Eventually I collected about 50 of them. After pouring out the dregs of the frying oil and thoroughly washing each of them with scalding hot water and a degreaser, I dried them out completely. This was fairly easy to do, as each jug has a 2-inch threaded opening at the top. I’m pleased to say this resulted in not a bit of mildew.
Next, I acquired a 100-foot roll of plastic tubing, 24 plastic taps, “Y” connectors, “T” connectors and straight tubing connectors. Using 2011 prices, the whole outfit would still cost me less than $60, but keep in mind that I bought my supplies 17 years ago. I was also able to offset my costs by selling my old metal spiles, buckets and lids to a large commercial “bucket” operation, so my actual out-of-pocket expense was probably less than $25. The next step was to assemble my “prototype.”
After I removed the inner cap liner, I drilled a hole in the screw-on lid large enough to permit snapping a straight tubing connector into it, while still allowing the cap to spin freely. To that I added a short shot of tubing, connecting the other end to the bottom of a “Y” connector. To the upper ends of the “Y,” I attached two more lengths of tubing and plastic taps on the ends of those.
When completed, my efforts yielded something resembling a doctor’s stethoscope or plumber’s nightmare! When it’s time to tap, I drill two holes into the tree, insert the taps and start collecting. When a jug is filled with sap, I simply spin off the lid, screw it onto a clean empty jug and twist an un-drilled lid onto the filled jug. Upon testing my little homemade “half n’ half” collection system, I found that it overcame many collection challenges.
The Benefits of Using the "Half n' Half" Sap Collection System:
• Zip, zero, nada ants.
• The jugs sit on the ground, so they can’t fall, tip or spill (unless the Law of Gravity is repealed).
• There is no chance of a full container pulling a tap out of the tree.
• When sealed with un-drilled lids, my filled jugs are my storage containers.
• Dishwasher cleanup of taps and connectors is a breeze (hot water wash, no detergent needed).
• The translucent plastic makes monitoring the jugs a snap, even from a distance.
• The 5-gallon volume means less time spent tending or replacing jugs.
• The larger volume collection permits one jug to service two taps.
• This system has extremely low acquisition costs.
• Swapping out a filled jug with a fresh, empty one takes about 10 seconds, and not one drop of sap is spilled.
• Replacement 5-gallon jugs and lids are readily available at no cost, all you have to do is ask around at commercial kitchens.
• The plastic taps and connectors will never rust.
So there you have it, our homemade “half n’ half” collection system significantly reduced acquisition cost, and increased efficiency, and we had no ants to contend with. I only wish it hadn’t taken me years to discover how relatively easy sap collection could be this way.
If there is a drawback in using this system, it’s that a filled 5-gallon cooking oil jug weighs about 43 pounds, lending new meaning to the term “heavy lifting.” But, there is one more sap collection strategy that may work for you as well.
4-Gallon Plastic Jugs
An equally inexpensive alternative to collecting sap in 5-gallon cooking oil jugs is to use 4-gallon drinking water bottles instead. Made of clear plastic and topped with a snap-on lid, these containers possess many of the same positive attributes as the cooking oil jugs.
Using 4-Gallon Plastic Jugs:
• Sap volume can be visually monitored from long distances away.
• 4-gallon water bottles are free for the asking.
• The filled bottle, topped with an un-drilled cap, transforms into a 4-gallon sap storage container.
• Because it was previously filled with potable water, it won’t need to be degreased before deployment.
• The slightly lower volume translates into 9 pounds less weight than the 5-gallon size when filled to capacity (about 35 pounds).
• If the plastic becomes brittle or discolored, simply send it on to the recycling center and acquire a replacement. Many folks use water bottles this size in their home drinking water dispensers.
Sadly, when compared with the 5-gallon cooking oil jugs, there are a few minor drawbacks I have found for the 4-gallon water bottles.
Drawbacks of Using the 4-Gallon Plastic Jugs:
• Because the jug is clear, it permits more UV and sunlight penetration, meaning your sap may spoil slightly faster.
• Each 4-gallon plastic jug holds 20 percent less than a 5-gallon cooking oil jug, so more containers are needed.
• Because many water bottles are round — as opposed to being square or rectangular and having flat sides — storing them in the off season might be a bit more problematic.
• Unlike the cooking oil jug, some water bottles lack a carrying handle.
But let’s not dwell on the negative. The point is that you now have a second quite viable sap collection container that may prove just as useful to you as the larger cooking oil jug size. And best of all, it’s free for the asking too. And there is no reason why you couldn’t employ a mix n’ match system using several of each (your maple trees will never know the difference).
How to Tap a Maple Tree: Taps
When selecting taps, you have essentially two basic choices: metal or plastic. If purchased by the dozen, classic galvanized steel or stainless spiles will cost about $2.50 each. You can choose between either 7/16-inch spiles or the 5/16-inch aluminum taps used with sap-bagging systems. For plastic taps, you also have two options: either the 7/16-inch-diameter or the newer, smaller-style, 5/16-inch-diameter models. Both work well, and some research indicates that the smaller plastic taps do not deter sap flow and actually help the tapholes heal faster at the end of the season. If they had been available in 1995, I’d have purchased smaller-diameter taps myself. But perhaps the best advantage from a cost standpoint is that the combined cost of a plastic tap, “T” or “Y” connector and straight connector is less than half the cost of a single metal spile.
I’d like to share one final note about sap storage containers. Sap weighs roughly 9 pounds per gallon. Translated, this means a filled 65-gallon storage tank will tip the scales at nearly 600 pounds, and using a 35-gallon trash can version will weigh in at 315 pounds — roughly half that amount. So give some serious consideration as to what you’ll store your sap in. Either alternative will be exceedingly difficult to relocate after you start filling it with sap — even if you have a strong sugaring partner to lend a hand. Remember, your overall objective is to make maple syrup; it’s not to damage your spine and strain your muscles in the process.