Sugarmaking Tips and Tricks

Reader Contribution by Julie Fryer and Maple Tapper
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Well, we’ve finally put a cap on this maple tapping season! All-in-all, I’d say it was a success . . . we had some weird weather, though, in Minnesota and parts of the upper Midwest that really wreaked havoc with the sap flow. First it was below-freezing well into the normal tapping season and then about 10 days after we finally tapped trees, we had a full week of above 65 degrees F+ temperatures! This heat wave all but shut down the sap flow for that week, proving that we really do need that freeze/thaw cycle. The third week of March was more cooperative with normal temperatures and we were getting a lot of sap from each taphole BUT that previous warm weather caused the trees to bud out, ending the season for good.

Beyond the weather we can’t ever control, I did learn a few things from this season. I guess you can teach an old sugarmaker new tricks! I thought I’d share these with you in my blog so you can learn from my experience (and hopefully not make these same mistakes yourself).

Lesson No. 1: Mark your trees in the fall. I look out into the sugarbush and I think I’ll remember exactly where my favorite trees are but once those leaves fall off (and it’s freezing cold or windy), all the trees start to look the same. Last fall when each tree was in full leaf, we took a roll of marking ribbon and tied it around the trees we’d tap in the spring. This is especially helpful if you’re tapping on a new piece of property. You can find this inexpensive, brightly colored, and weather-resistant marking tape at just about any home center, hardware store, or online.

One caveat: This tape is also used by surveyors and each color represents something they’ve marked (for instance, blue indicates a water line). So, if you happen to be marking trees in areas under construction or about to be surveyed, your ribbons might confuse contractors working in that area.

Lesson No. 2. Buy a backup thermometer. It only took me three years to figure this one out! Maybe I’m the only fumble-fingers out there but I can count on dropping my thermometer into the pan at least once during the season. And, surprisingly those digital thermometers don’t work very well once they’re submerged in boiling sap. Last year, I was only about 6° away from my target when it happened so I had to stop my boil, drive to town, and pick up another thermometer. Well, fool me twice and I’ll finally get smart. This year I bought two thermometers and, guess what? I ended up needing it during our last boil!

Lesson No. 3: Bottle in small jars. Again, it only takes me a few years to get smart! Last year, I bottled in quart jars and it took my family ages to eat their way through each opened jar. I’ll also admit I get a little stingy with my syrup and I really did want to give away syrup to friends but just couldn’t part with an entire quart! So, over the summer I scouted rummage sales and thrift shops for little pint or half-pint jars (making sure the rims were pristine and not chipped). Now I have a stockpile of gift-sized jars that I’m be happy to share.

Lesson No. 4: A little sugar sand must fall in every life. As the water evaporates from your sap, minerals and nutrients are also concentrated down and appear as sediment in your syrup. This is called niter or sugar sand, and it’s typically removed by filtering. Any leftover sugar sand will make your syrup cloudy and eventually settle to the bottom of your jars. While it’s absolutely okay to eat, it doesn’t look the greatest. And with my last batch of the season, sugar sand got the better of me!

I did a little research and found the answer to what I did wrong: once you’ve done the final two-stage filtering, syrup has to stay at 180°F or higher and go directly into bottles. Of course I was trying to multi-task (boil my sap and serve Easter Brunch!) so I had to let it sit after filtering and I reheated it later to bottle. When I reheated it, more niter formed but didn’t really show up until after it settled in the jars.

So What’s Next?

There’s really not much left to do in the sugarmaking world other than wait around for next year! This time of year, though, is a good time to restock your supplies and equipment. And summertime means yard sales and auctions – if you’re so inclined, these are fabulous places to find everything from jars to stainless steel pans. Write down a few notes, too, as to how your season went. These tidbits will be helpful next year.

I’ll sign off for this year but will keep in touch as the next season approaches. I’d also love to hear from you and see how your season went. You can email right here on this blog or contact me directly at this link. Thanks for sharing this fun hobby with me!

You can also read all of Julie’s blogs in this series hereFor more information on sugarmaking, her books, Guide to Maple Tapping and Kid’s Guide to Maple Tapping, are available on Amazon in both ebook and printed versions.

The information and instructions contained within this blog series were gleaned through the personal sugarmaking experience of the author, through interviews and case studies with professional sugarmakers, and through these resources:

Blumenstock, Marvin (author); Hopkins, Kathy (editor); How to Tap Maple Trees and Make Maple Syrup, 2007

Cornell Sugar Maple Research & Extension Program, Frequently Asked Questions for the Maple Producer, Forest Owner, and Consumer, authored by Peter J. Smallidge, Marianne E. Krasny, Lewis J. Staats, Steve Childs, and Mike Farrell, 2013

Heiligmann, Randall B., Ohio State School of Natural Resources, Hobby Maple Syrup Production

Vogt, Carl, University of Minnesota Extension, Minnesota maple series: Identifying maples trees for syrup production, 2013.

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