Tapping Maple Trees Using Natural Sumac Spiles, Part 2

Part 1 outlined the beginning steps to tapping maple and birch trees using natural sumac taps, including how to make sumac taps and how and when to tap the tree. This post will tell you what to do with your sap to boil it down into maple syrup.

What to Do with Maple Sap

We usually start boiling down sap when we get at least 7 to 10 gallons of sap. Note: It takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. If you don’t have enough sap to start boiling, you can freeze the sap until you have enough to boil. Boiling should be done outside, because it can cause sticky walls! We use a very basic/rustic pit fire. Never use propane — fumes can cause an “off” taste.

Some people are using the sap as a health drink and the birch sap is also being used in the making of beer. This is where you can “tap” into another market. We have an order for our sap to be used by a brewery this winter. We also have our bottled “sap” water. In the state of North Carolina, it is suggested to have samples of your proposed “sap” water tested before selling to market.

The Boiling Down Process

Time and temp. With the maple or birch sap, you do want a hot and rapidly boiling fire. You want to burn off the water content to get to the “sugar.” Boiling 7 to 10 gallons of sap can take up to 10 or 12 hours. This depends on the water content. Although you don’t have to use Sugar Maples, they do contain less water and more “sugar”.

Container and heat source. Always boil in stainless steel containers. We use stockpots. We have containers we only use for this purpose because the bottoms get blackened. You either want to have your fire under cover (lean-to shed) or do this on a clear day. You can boil on an electric burner but, it can be expensive and the burner needs to heat enough to be a rapid boil.

Skimming “niter.” When boiling, you will see a grayish foam (“niter”) collect on top — skim this off. You can set up a makeshift table to have your stainless steel skimmer and a bowl of water. When skimming off the niter, rinse the skimmer in the bowl of water — otherwise you’ll be putting niter back into the pot. This niter is very bitter and will cause your syrup to have an “off” taste if not removed.

My grandmother use to say, “that tastes as bitter as niter.” This is also referred to as “sugar sand.”

Maple Syrup

When the sap has boiled down to an amber/dark liquid, you can now take this inside to finish off. It won’t take much longer to finish into syrup now. Take inside and put on medium-high and boil.

It will be like making candy. It will start to froth and may try to boil over, so stir down. When you see “frog eggs”, or tiny bubbles, you know it’s getting close to being finished. It will do like jelly and “sheet” off the spoon. When you reach that point, get ready to strain and bottle.

Do not use coffee filters to strain syrup. You can use linen or cheese cloth while the syrup is very hot — as it cools, it will be harder to strain.

Caution: Don’t pour into glass bottles. If you have boiled too much, the syrup will crystallize and cause the glass to break. Especially if this is your first batch. We let the syrup cool for a short period and then pour into “honey bear” jars.

How can you tell if you haven’t boiled enough? You can test your syrup by putting it in the freezer. If it freezes, there is too much water left in the syrup. You could re-boil or keep refrigerated until used up. A perfect product stays liquid in the freezer.

Ending the Flow

The tree will let you know when the flow is over. Sap will decrease of course. The sap you are getting will be cloudy and this is the way the tree says STOP. It’s time for leaf buds to begin and the tree needs her energy. We stop sapping by the first week in March. Remove the sumac taps and allow the tree to heal.

Good luck with a new farm/homestead project!

Susan Tipton-Fox uses continues the farming and preserving practices that had been passed down to her by her family. She presents on-farm workshops in Yancey County, North Carolina, and growing her on-farm agritourism by promoting “workshop stays” on the farm (extending the farm experience). Find Susan on Facebook, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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