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A Sweet Season Flows: How to Tap Maple Trees and Make Syrup on a Wood-Burning Stove

In the late winter months, when nighttime and daytime temperatures oscillate from deep-freezing to above-freezing, an imperceptible shift begins to take place in the trees around us. This huge variation in temperature is a signal that spring is coming, and in preparation for leaf growth, sap begins to rise up within the tree. Like a hydraulic pulse pumping within the tree, this sap—a watery fluid rich with nutrients and sugars—ascends from roots to branches, marking the beginning of a very sweet season.

Though sap flow occurs in a wide variety of trees, there is one variety that produces a sap sweeter than them all: The Sugar Maple. For a six-week window of time before the break of spring, the sugar maple flows. The sap can be tapped, and then boiled down to make golden, luscious homemade maple syrup.  

Maple syrup made from sugar and red maple trees. Photo courtesy of Waterfall Farm

A Shifting Season

The maple-tapping season as a whole is subject to location and has different parameters depending on your location, changing the further north you travel, notes Wheeler Munroe, who has been tapping maple trees on her family farm in Ashe County, North Carolina, since 2012. “Around here, in the South,” continues Munroe, “we look at when the maple trees are going to break bud and bloom. That first little pop of bud-break marks the end of our sap season, because the chemistry of the sap changes. So you estimate when the bud-break is going to be, and then you back up 6 weeks, and that's when you tap your trees.”

On Waterfall Farm, where she works with her father, Doug Munroe, the tapping season begins on the first of February and runs through through mid March, when the trees begin to bud. But it’s a shifting season, once that tracks the path to spring. “For my brother and his wife who produce maple syrup in New York state,” says Munroe, “they're making their first syrup as we're making our last.”

Tapping for All

“Tapping a maple tree is something that anyone can do,” says Natalie Bogwalker, a tree-tapping hobbyist and the founder of Wild Abundance and the Firefly Gathering. “And,” she adds, “it’s especially magical for children.”

Bogwalker started tapping when she noticed three healthy sugar maples growing in the forest next to a house that she lived in years ago in Barnardsville, North Carolina. She and her housemates at the time tapped the trees using homemade sumac taps (sumac wood is hollow, and functions as an excellent alternative to steel taps).

The maple sap itself, describes Bogwalker, is very different from what you buy in a bottle when you purchase maple syrup from a store. “The raw sap that comes directly from the tree is a dilute thing,” she says. “It’s subtle, light, slightly sweet, and tinted very slightly tan. Also, it often sours within three days, so you want to process it right away.” 

After harvesting the watery sap from buckets hanging below the sumac taps, Bogwalker then cooked the sap down on her wood burning stove, which was always lit and functioned as the house’s only heat source. From the few trees she tapped in her backyard, Bogwalker extracted about 30 gallons of sap in all, and that boiled down to about 3 quarts of sticky, golden maple syrup.

“Down here in the Southern Appalachians, it takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup,” says Bogwalker. “Sugar maples have the highest sugar content in their sap, but you can also tap red maples, black walnut trees, box elders, and tulip poplars—but then the ratio of sugar [to sap] changes, and you might need up to 80 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup, that is too much work for me!”

“What you want,” continue Bogwalker, “is to drill through the bark and into the cambium layer of the tree, where xylem is coming up from the ground and feeding the leaves of the tree, so you’re only [diverting sap] from that little section of the tree that you're tapping, and a tree can be tapped for many many years as long as you remove the taps when you're done so the tree can heal over.”

Photo courtesy of Waterfall Farm

Home versus large scale production (in the home: wood burning stove or bust)

Syrup production using an electric or propane stove is not recommended, since, in addition to a tremendous energy bill and use of non-renewable resources, you’d be adding a large amount of moisture to the air in your home (which could cause all sorts of issues on its own). Since sap needs to be intensely reduced, small-scale syrup production only makes sense if you have a wood burning stove that’s already being used to heat your home. A wood burning stove naturally robs moisture from the air, so wetness resulting from sap reduction will not become a problem.  This only works effectively with wood stoves that do not have firebricks in the top of the stove. Firebricks absorb heat, which makes the stove better at holding and slowly releasing heat into the room, making them ineffective at heating liquid placed on the surface of the stove.

Bogwalker used a medium scale set-up when living with her partner outside of Boone, NC, years ago. They set up a homemade, ramshackle boiler outside with cinderblocks stacked about 3 feet high with a giant stainless steel tray from a salad bar used as the boiling pan.  

Processing on a larger scale, however, requires a sugar shack or sap house, where sap can be boiled down to syrup in large open vats that are heated with wood. On Waterfall Farm, all the maple trees are connected by network of plastic tubing that carries the sap from the trees and ushers it directly to the outdoor sugarhouse for processing. Wheeler and her father tap both sugar and red maple trees. “Our syrup is a blend,” says Munroe, “and the red maple sap lowers our sugar concentration a little, so we get 1.5-1.7 percent sugar in the sap. In places like Vermont, sugar ratios in the raw sap can be as high as 2.5 percent, but we haven't seen that here.” For their production process, it takes about 50 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. The industry standard is 66 percent sugar content for the final product.

Tree assessment before tapping

Before you get started, here are some considerations that Munroe suggests to ensure that best practices are implemented prior to tapping:

• Assess the health of the tree first. Look at the tree's truck and make sure there aren't any scars or wounds that the tree’s trying to heal from. Look at the crown of the tree, and make sure it is robust and healthy and that there's not any dead wood up there.

• If the tree is at least six inches in diameter at the truck at waist height, it’s safe to tap. Any smaller then that means it’s not ready.

• If you reach your arms around a maple tree, and if you can't touch your fingers on the other side, then the tree’s big enough for two taps. Anything smaller than that is a one-tap tree, and Munroe suggests never putting in more than two taps per tree.

• If you do have more than one tap in a tree, you want those taps to be as far away from each other as possible, so they're not competing with each other.

• The largest, oldest maple trees, contrary to what you might think, actually produce less syrup than younger big trees. Old trees, when you tap them, are not as productive. Like people, young trees that have reached maturity are bursting with life, while older ones begin to slow down. 

To tap trees in your backyard, you’ll need:

• A stainless steel tap (which can be purchased online for about $4, and be sure to order a tap that comes with a metal hook for the bucket to hang from)

• A 2-gallon bucket to hang from the taps

• An electric drill

• A 5/16th drill bit (make sure the size corresponds with the tap we're using)

• A wooden mallet for driving in the tap

• A wood burning stove or a homemade boiler outside made to accommodate hotel pans or other deep stainless steel trays. Stainless steel hotel pans or mini hotel pan, or as many pots as will fit on your wood stove!

How to Tap

With your electric drill and 5/16th bit (or bit that corresponds to the tap you’re using), drill a 1 ½ inch hole into the maple at either waist or shoulder height. You want to drill straight in and straight out as best you can (you don’t want the hole to be oval or uneven, and you don’t want the drill to wobble in your hands).

Once you’ve drilled the hole, make sure it’s clean of any sawdust left behind (flick the sawdust completely). 

Then drive in your tap with a wooden mallet.

Leave the tap open, and hang your bucket below it.

Check your buckets 1-3 times a day (more if it’s warm, as wider temperature fluctuation can increase the sap flow, and sap spoils more quickly when it warmer outside).

Keep your wood burning stove cranking and reduce, reduce, reduce. Enjoy!

All photos provided by Water Fall Farm.

For more information on Wild Abundance or to join a weeklong or weekend intensive like the Wild Food Foraging Adventure, the Ancestral Foods Cooking Class, and the Tiny House and Natural Building Class, check out Wild Abundance and click on the school or class titles.

Natalie Bogwalker and Wheeler Munroe team up every year to lead a Ladies Basic Carpentry Class outside of Asheville North Carolina in July, 2016.  

To learn more about the work of Wheeler & Doug Munroe, check out Waterfall Farm.

In addition to farming maple syrup, Wheeler Munroe produces handcrafted leather tool belts tailored to the tools and skills of farmers, florists, and woodworkers. Check out her leather belts at Wheeler Munroe Leather Company

Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt is an organic top bar beekeeper, a mead maker, herbalist and organic gardener. Since moving to Asheville, N.C., she has worked as a contributing writer for the Mountain Xpress, Asheville’s alternative weekly newspaper, focusing on matters of sustainability, food security, waste and community activism. Read Aiyanna’s recent publications here, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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