Making Maple Syrup for Fun and Profit

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Whether in Michigan or Old Sturbridge Village, New England where this photo was taken, making maple syrup is a popular activity across in all northern latitudes.
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An evaporation pan with interior baffles. Maple sap flows in at point "A" and follows a meandering course to point "E".
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A bucket for collecting sap. Note the lid to prevent debris from falling in.
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A more primitive method of boiling maple sap.
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Sap spout and hook. The spout only needs to go in about 2 inches.
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Other assorted tools of the trade.
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A homemade evaporator.
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A felt strainer bag to remove sugar "sand."
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A commercial evaporator for boiling sap down to syrup.

It’s a long way from gathering maple sap in
hollowed-out logs and boiling it down outdoors in iron
kettles in 1800 to the monstrous reverse osmosis concentrator of maple sap now being tested by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture. With equipment somewhere in
between these two extremes, a lot of homestead and
medium-to-large commercial operations produce a lot of
maple syrup in this country every year. Commercial setups
generally pump the sap right out of the trees and pipe it
directly into specially-designed refineries these days, but the
folks on a number of small homesteads
still earn spending money by gathering maple juice in
buckets and concentrating it over wood fires in homemade
“arches.” Sarah Funk is one of those folks and here’s how
the Funks do it up in Michigan.



If you live in the northeastern quarter of this country and
have access to one or more hard maple trees, you’ve
probably thought about making maple syrup. Well, by all
means, get some equipment and give it a try! Don’t let the
fainthearts discourage you with their warnings about
backbreaking labor and long, tedious cooking. Of course
there’s some work involved and patience required, but we’ve
found that good things are worth working for … and
sometimes it’s that very work which makes good things even
better!

There’s a joyous sense of accomplishment in producing a
healthful, organic sweetener for your kitchen (one less
item to buy from the supermarket!) and, for sale or barter,
syrup has an advantage over most farm produce: it’s not
perishable. We put ours away in the basement and sell most
of it to summer visitors.

Whether you plan to make syrup for homestead use only or
hope to sell some for a small income, think the procedure
through both carefully and in advance. Decide how big an
operation you want and secure all necessary equipment
before you begin. Moments are precious once the sap starts
running.

If you establish a small commercial venture as we did,
two main factors will limit the size of your operation: one
is the number of trees available and the other is manpower.

Let’s consider the trees first. A hard maple, five inches
in diameter, is large enough for one taphole; a
smaller tree can be permanently damaged if tapped. (In
The Maple Sugar Book — the definitive work on the
subject —  Helen and Scott Nearing say not to tap a tree that is
less than 12 inches thick two feet
above ground
level. In addition, Mr. Paul Richards of Chardon, Ohio and
Mr. George Binnig, of Thompson, Ohio — both of whom are
in the maple syrup business — strongly advise against
tapping any tree under 10 inches in diameter, and even
then prefer waiting until the tree is 12 inches
thick — MOTHER EARTH NEWS.)
A tree twice as large may be
tapped twice, while some old trees are large enough for
three, four or even five tapholes. Don’t be tempted to
overtap. When in doubt, give the tree a break.

The season’s yield from each taphole may be roughly
estimated at 20 gallons, although the quality of the sap
declines at the end of the flow and may not be worth
collecting. Remember, of course, that this 20 gallons per
taphole per season is only an approximate figure which will
vary greatly according to location and other factors.

Another rule of thumb has it that about 40 gallons of sap
will make one gallon of syrup. However, the sugar content
of sap is not constant and this figure will also vary.
Combining these two figures, then (with many
qualifications), we arrive at the rough estimate, under
optimum conditions, of one gallon of finished syrup for
every two holes tapped. Optimum conditions are seldom
achieved, however, and we must allow for waste, spillage,
spoilage, and accidents. To be realistic, cut the above
estimate in half and plan on one gallon of syrup for every
four tapholes.

The other factor to consider in planning your operation is
the number of people who will be available to do the work.
Based on our experience last year (My husband Arthur and I did all the collecting,
cooking, and finishing from 150 tapholes), we would suggest
that one person working full-time can handle 100 taps.

I’m probably sticking my neck out in making such an
estimate because so much depends on the weather, the
geography of your setup, and plain old human nature. But I
do think you’ll be on the safe side if you don’t undertake
more than 100 tapholes per person during your first
year.

Basic Equipment

Basic equipment for syrup making includes: (1) a brace and
bit, (2) spouts and hooks, (3) collecting buckets and
covers, (4) gathering pails, (5) a collecting tank, (6) a
vehicle if you transport the sap any distance, (7) one or
more holding tanks, (8) a sugarhouse or building where the
sap may be boiled down, (9) the stovelike evaporator or
arch on which the cooking is done, (10) an ample supply of
firewood, (11) a cooking pan, (12) a hydrometer or
thermometer, (13) skimmer, (14) milk can or similar
container for holding the rough boiled syrup, (15) a
finishing pan and stove, (16) felt strainer and (17)
containers for the refined syrup.

If the list seems long, don’t be discouraged! Most of the
equipment can be improvised or bought secondhand. Run an ad
in the local paper and you may find everything you need
from one source. Here are two maple syrup supply companies
that will be happy to send you their catalogs. But by
all means, use them only as a last resort:

Sugar Bush Supplies Company

G.H. Grimm Company, Inc.

All containers, spouts, fittings, tanks and buckets which
come into contact with the sap must be of a material which can be thoroughly cleaned, such as glass, plastic, or stainless steel. Metals
which would otherwise rust and contaminate the syrup should
be treated with a lead-free nontoxic paint obtained from a
maple syrup supply house such as Sugar Bush.

The Brace and Bit

If you don’t have a brace and bit for tapping your trees,
you can usually borrow one from anyone who does some
woodworking. Bits from 3/8 to 1/2-inch are used for this
job. I favor the smaller size because it gives a tighter
fit with less chance of leakage on the spouts we use.

Spouts (Spiles) and Hooks

Early settlers whittled tapping spouts from wood (some
folks still do) and small boys have fashioned them from tin
can covers, but you’ll probably be better off buying
than trying to improvise this particular item. As far as I
can ascertain, the manufactured tapping spiles come in only
one size. Each is banded by a metal ring with a hook that
supports the collecting bucket.

Collecting Buckets and Covers

You’ll need one collecting bucket for every taphole
(natcherly), which can run into money. Try contacting
the food processing plants in your area and asking if they
ever discard five-gallon containers of any kind. We found a
canning factory that had discontinued the use of some
square, white, plastic five-gallon cans that were ours for
the taking. I’m not fond of plastic but these buckets cost
us nothing and are light, easy to clean, and
rustproof.
Make a small hole in the side of each container, near the
top, and hang the bucket from the hook of one of the
inserted spiles. A bucket this size will usually
hold a day’s run of sap, but I make no guarantees. On a good
day a good tap in a good tree will produce more than five
gallons. But, since the best syrup is made from the
freshest sap, you’ll probably want to empty each collector
can two or three times a day anyway. And that way you also won’t have to worry about overflowing buckets.

The collecting containers must be covered to keep out snow,
leaves, dirt, and debris. We tried using tinfoil to protect
ours at first, but the idea was a total flop. We finally
devised some satisfactory lids out of scrap lumber by
cutting the wood about two inches larger in each direction
than the top of the bucket On the bottom side of every
cover we nail two strips of wood (if the bucket is square)
or three little blocks (if it’s round) to fit just inside
the rim of the bucket and hold the lid in place Then we
cutaway a notch on one side where the spout will be to
allow the sap to drip in, making sure the notch is
large enough so the sap won’t touch wood at any
point.

Gathering Pails

The bought or scavenged five-gallon containers used for
collector buckets can also be fashioned into gathering
pails by the addition of a bail. These pails are used for
transporting fresh sap from the collector buckets to either
a collector or holding tank. Unless you intend to
sling them from a shoulder yoke, the bails should not
be too long. You may find yourself carrying these pails
through deep snow at times and the task will be much easier
if the containers clear the drifts. Make two pails for each
“tote” person and keep some extras on hand for friends who
drop by to share the fun.

The Collecting Tank and Transporting Vehicle

You won’t need a collecting tank if yours is a small,
well-placed sugaring operation where sap can be
hand-carried directly from the tapping buckets to the sugar
shed holding tanks. Few sugar setups are so compact,
however, and most require the hauling of sap in some kind
of receptacle.

A collecting tank needn’t actually be a tank at all. It can be any sort of container that will hold a day’s run
of sap long enough to cart the liquid out of the woods.
I’ve even heard of one fellow who uses half a dozen milk
cans tied to his tractor.

The kind of container you come up with will depend on your
method of transportation. We’d love to haul our sap out of
the forest in a special sleigh behind a team of horses, but we’ve settled for a less romantic means of
transportation. We use a four-wheel-drive truck with a
200-gallon tank on the back into which we bucket our maple
juice. A tractor or jeep pulling a sled, wagon, or trailer
loaded with drums, tanks, or five-gallon cans are other
possibilities as long as they can get through the snow and
slush.

Whatever your vehicle, make sure the collecting tank or
tanks are securely fastened and covered. Roads in the woods
are bound to be rough, there may even be inclines. A
great deal of sap can splash out and be lost unless you take precautions.

The Holding Tanks

As fresh maple sap is collected, it must be stored in a
holding tank or tanks until you have enough juice on hand
to make boiling it worthwhile. The number of these tanks
that you’ll need depends on their capacity and the size of
your sugaring operation. Our storage tank (a twin to the
collecting tank we use) holds 200 gallons, which is barely
adequate. We hope to add a second holding tank of the
same size this year.

By the way, our tanks were originally used by local cherry
growers for transporting fruit. We got them for very
little and I think similar containers are used by cherry
growers in other parts of the country. Ask around and you
may find a bargain tank or two yourself.

Place your storage tank adjacent to an outside wall of the
sugarhouse as close as possible to the inlet on the cooking
pan and on a platform that supports the base of the tank
level with the base of the pan. Make an outlet in the
bottom of the holding tank and fit it with a pipe
connection that extends through the sugarhouse wall and
into the inlet on the side of the cooking pan. If the pan
doesn’t have an inlet hole in its side, raise the tank a
little higher and extend the feeder pipe over the pan. The
feeder pipe must have a shut-off valve through which the
flow of sap from the tank to the pan can be regulated. If
there are two tanks, hook the second to the first with a
separate shut-off valve between the storage vats.

The Sugarhouse

Location of the sugarhouse is a strategic matter, whether
you build one from scratch or decide to utilize an existing
building. First, consider the matter of proximity. If the
sugarhouse is in or near the woodlot, it’s close to both
the sap and the firewood supply. However, since the boiling
down or cooking of maple sap is a
time-consuming process, some folks prefer to locate the
sugar shed near a barn, garage or other building where they
can carry on a second chore while “keeping an eye” on the
cooking.

Next, because syrup time precisely coincides with “high
water” time, think about access to your sugar shanty during
muddy weather. Melting snow and spring showers will turn a
seemingly solid piece of ground into an impassable morass.
If you can’t locate the boiling house on high ground, at
least try for a spot that’s reasonably well drained.

If you’re blessed with a small knoll in a favorable spot,
on the other hand (or have the means to create one), build
your sugarhouse close by and set up a simple gravity-feed
system from the collecting tank into the storage area. Your
truck or other vehicle can be driven onto the knoll and, by
means of a simple connection, the sap transferred from the
collecting tank to the storage tank without pumping or
bucketing.

Finally, consider the availability of water and electricity
to the sugar shed. Though neither facility is absolutely
essential, they both can come in handy. If I had to select
only one, I’d choose water because it’s such a convenience
to be able to wash the sugaring equipment without carrying
it to another building. A ready supply of water is also a
godsend in case of fire or other emergency (more about this
later).

Electricity is necessary only if you’re ambitious enough to
plan on boiling sugar a lot after dark. Remember that, if you do
wire the cooking house, the building will be filled
with steam which can easily cause a short. Don’t mount a
light bulb directly over the pan.

The sugarhouse itself is basically only a shelter from the
weather and needn’t be elaborate. Ideally, it’ll be large
enough to house the arch, a supply of firewood
and — during the offseason — all the buckets and
other equipment. A concrete floor is handy as it furnishes
a ready-made foundation for the evaporator.

Don’t forget to make provisions for the steam to escape!
Vents near the top of the building — such as the wide
cracks between the upper wall boards on our
sugarhouse — will let moist air out without allowing
cold gusts to blow across and cool the boiling
sap.

The Arch

The arch, or evaporator, is the stovelike structure which
supports the cooking pan and encloses the fire. Many
commercial producers use gas-fired arches nowadays, but we
have a lot of wood available and (after cooking on a wood
range) we feel that a wood-fired evaporator produces sap
with a superior flavor.

Prefabbed and assembled metal arches are widely used by
modern commercial maple syrup refiners, but you can still
build a do-it-yourself arch out of any fireproof material
on hand: brick, stone, cement block, monolithic concrete
poured in forms, or whatever. just remember that the top of
the arch should fit the pan exactly in order to avoid
unnecessary heat loss. Your evaporator is “efficient” if
the sugarhouse doesn’t get very warm while you’re boiling
sap. This means that all the heat is going where it’s
supposed to!

The building we chose as our sugar shed had a crumbling brick chimney. We rebuilt it and attached our arch. If you don’t
have a chimney and aren’t up to building one, a metal
stovepipe will do if it’s 12 to 14 inches in
diameter, runs straight up with no elbows, and has a
protective cap on top to keep out rain and birds.

Because of the wide variety of materials from which an
evaporator may be built, and because I’m not a skilled
stonemason, I won’t attempt to give detailed instructions
for building an arch. Use your ingenuity, your library, and
your friends to find out how to work with what you have.
When in doubt, stay simple.

Actually, the project isn’t that difficult. Arthur had only a sketchy background in concrete work and
I had none at all when we began our arch, yet together we built a fine, workable one.
Based on that experience I feel qualified to offer the
following pointers:

(1) If your sugar shed doesn’t have a concrete floor, begin
construction of the arch by pouring a concrete footing for
it.

(2) Be sure you get the right type of sand—with rough
and not “round” grains—when you mix your own cement.
If the proper sand is not available, buy the more
expensive redi-mix concrete. When you’re going to the
trouble of building an arch, you might as well use
materials that’ll last.

(3) For greatest boiling efficiency, the syrup pan doesn’t
sit on top of the arch. It is the top of the arch and the
walls of the evaporator are built up around it. To assure a
proper pan-arch mating, center the pan on the arch and
build a two-inch-high wall of bricks, stone, or concrete
around it. Leave spaces in the wall for the pan’s inlet and
outlet so that the container can be filled or drained while
in position.

(4) Before you begin construction of the evaporator, mark
out its dimensions on the floor or footing you’ve built. If
you already have a pan, the length and width of the
container will determine the size of the evaporator (the
pan sits down in the top of this specialized stove so the
outside dimensions of a stone or concrete evaporator built
straight up from the floor will equal the length or width
of the pan plus the desired thickness of the retaining
walls around it).

(5) The evaporator needn’t be very high. Ours measures 3
1/2 feet, which is just ample for a roaring fire under the
pan. Do remember that the cooking pan does fit right down
into the top of the sugar stove and each inside dimension
of the opening in the top of the arch under the
pan
should be about four inches less than the
corresponding dimension of the pan itself.

(6) The firepit should occupy only half the space enclosed
by the arch. Fill the remaining area (toward the chimney)
with dirt, rocks, or rubble to within three inches of the
bottom of the pan. This makes for more efficient use of
heat.

(7) Line the bottom and the sides of the firepit with
bricks made of fire clay instead of regular concrete. Such
bricks are expensive, but they’ll prevent the outer
structure from eventually cracking from the heat.

(8) The front or end of the evaporator opposite the chimney
needs a firedoor large enough to admit sizable logs. If you
aren’t fortunate enough to find such a door in a junkyard,
fashion one from a suitable piece of metal and hang it from
rings mounted in the concrete.

(9) If you can find some angle iron, use it to make a frame
about 3/8-inch larger all around than the boiling pan (to
allow for the pan’s expansion) and grout the frame into the
top of the stove. The angle iron will protect the concrete
from wear over the years as the pan is inserted and
removed.

(10) Orthodox operations insist that the cooking pan must
sit level. We, however, allow the outlet corner of the flat
container to be just one inch lower than the pan’s opposite
corner. This helps the receptacle to drain.

(11) Work slowly and thoughtfully, checking the work with a
level as you proceed. A lot of time and energy can be
wasted tearing down a thoughtless mistake.

(12) Concrete will not cure properly if the temperature
goes below freezing during the first 24 hours after it’s
poured. In any case, if at all possible, allow your new
evaporator to “set” two weeks before you use it.

Obtaining Firewood

Firewood to fuel the arch is frequently available for the
cutting and hauling. Lots of people (here in Michigan,
anyway) have dead elm trees on their property that they’re
glad to get rid of. Sawmills frequently give away slab wood
and hundreds of trees are cut every day and never used on
land “developments” and the right-of-ways for roads and
power lines. You’ll soon find, given your choice, that dead
elm is adequate but apple burns longer and beech and maple
hotter.

Cut the firewood into lengths that’ll fit the firepit of
your arch (logs larger than seven inches in diameter
usually must be split to burn well) and stack
it — under cover if possible — where it will be
handy for the boiling. If your sugarhouse is big enough,
you can even store the wood right inside; in that case the
ventilation must be adequate or the steam
from cooking might well make the unused fuel too wet to
burn.

The Pan

If at all possible, secure your syrup-boiling pan first and
build the arch to fit it. Or if your evaporator is
already constructed, find a competent sheetmetal man and
have him make a pan that exactly fits the arch. You can
estimate the capacity in gallons of a given pan by
multiplying its length times width times depth (in inches)
and dividing by 230 (cubic inches per gallon).

Should you acquire, as we did, a pan that has been
previously used for syrup making, you may find that a
whitish tartar residue has built up on the inside of the
container. Don’t be dismayed. This is a natural by-product
of the boiling and does no harm. If a pan looks badly
scorched, though, don’t buy it because no amount of
scrubbing will make it clean enough to produce a really
high-grade syrup. Don’t start with someone else’s problems.

Our pan is baffled. A baffled pan is not
absolutely necessary for cooking syrup, but it does do a
better job than a plain flat pan. The built-in guides, you
see, divide the pan lengthwise into compartments which are
not entirely separated but which feed into each other
through small apertures at the ends of the baffles. The sap goes into the first
compartment, and as the solution cooks down and
more sap is added the concentrated solution progressively
moves into compartments 2, 3 and 4. This results in an
ever-increasingly concentrated solution which is, finally,
withdrawn at the outlet.

The boiling pan’s inlet and outlet are situated on opposite
sides of the end of the container which sits away from the
chimney. The inlet can be either an opening into the pan or
simply a pipe which extends over the edge of the
receptacle. The outlet is an opening in the side of the
container near the bottom of the fourth compartment. Make
them both of standard plumbing fixtures equipped with
shut-off valves. Be sure to wash these fixtures in hot
soapy water and scrub them inside with a bottle brush, both
before and after use.

Hydrometer or Thermometer

To guide you as you cook the sap, you’ll need either a
hydrometer (which measures the density of liquids) or a
thermometer (which measures temperature). Used properly,
either will tell you how thick the bubbling liquid has
become. Commercial operators refer to a special syrup
thermometer which is easy to read at the crucial
temperatures, but we manage to get by with an ordinary
candy thermometer and I’m sure you can too.

A Skimmer

As the syrup cooks, a foam will form on its surface. This
foam should be skimmed off. Make yourself a skimmer from a
piece of screen wire approximately three by four inches.
Place this screening in a metal frame to keep it rigid and
attach it to a wooden handle long enough to reach across
the width of the pan.

The Milk Can

When the syrup is about half done and ready for finishing
it’s very convenient to draw the liquid off into a clean
milk can or any similar container of 5 or 10-gallon
capacity.

Finishing Pan and Stove

Unless you’re going big scale, the kitchen stove will
probably suffice for “finishing” or the final cooking down
of the syrup. A metal washtub (as long as it isn’t rusty)
can be scrubbed out to serve as a finishing pan. Last year,
we finished in a washtub on the wood range, which was
satisfying and rustic. But we’re aiming for a little more
control this year by building a stainless steel pan to fit
on our kerosene stove.

Felt Strainer

The finished syrup must be strained through a heavy felt
bag to remove the residue called sugar “sand” or “niter.”
These bags can be purchased from supply houses or made at
home from heavy felt. Each is a pouch about 12 inches long
and 7 inches wide at the top which tapers to a somewhat
narrower bottom. Wash the bags between uses and don’t store
them near moth balls.

Containers for Bottling

Maple syrup may be bottled in glass, metal, or plastic.
Mason jars are excellent for home use, but are an
extravagance if you plan to sell syrup in them. Perhaps you
can take orders from your potential customers and ask them
to supply their own containers. You might also check out
your neighbors or local recycling operations for usable
glass jars. As a last resort, try restaurants where you can
probably get gallon containers but — be
forewarned — they’re almost sure to be plastic. If you
can get rid of the smell of pickles or mayonnaise and if
you can find a way to create an air-tight seal, you can use
such jars … but only if.

Getting Ready

You should have all this equipment on hand and ready to use
by the middle of March. Wash the buckets and spigots in hot
soapy water and rinse them well. Scrub and thoroughly rinse
the pan and tanks too, then wait for the weather to
break. Warm days and cold nights will start the sap on its
journey up the tree trunks. If there’s a maple tree near
your house, make an experimental taphole and watch until
you see liquid oozing. That’s your signal to get busy
tapping.

Tree Tapping

I’ve heard of people tapping all kinds of maples and even
non-maples, but for best results we stick to the hard
maple trees. They differ from the soft maple by having a
darker, rougher bark. If in doubt about a tree, look up at
its branches: the limbs of the soft maple are light
gray and much smoother than those of the hard maple.

There are two advantages to tapping a tree on its south
side: (1) such a tap sometimes yields more sap and (2) the
sun will melt any ice that freezes in a south-facing spout.

Try to line the tapholes up with the main “arteries” of the
tree, above large roots or below large limbs. Make each
hole at whatever height feels comfortable and, before
drilling, use a hatchet or knife to smooth off an area on
the trunk for the bucket to hang against.

The sap flow is concentrated in the outer two inches of the
tree (not including the bark) so there’s no need to drill
deeply. Put a scratch or a piece of tape about two inches
from the end of your bit. Using this as a guide, you’ll
drill through the bark and into the wood about one inch,
which is far enough. (In The Maple Sugar Book, mention is made of a man in the maple syrup business who
has drilled up to six inches deep, though the Nearings
themselves tap only one or two inches deep.
—MOTHER EARTH NEWS.)

Next, slip the spout through its ring and into the taphole.
The spile should slide in easily at first. Then, as it
widens, the spout will need a gentle tap with a hammer to
firm it into place. Handle the spout carefully and don’t
pound it out of shape. When it’s firmly in position, hang a
bucket on the hook and add the protective cover (making
sure it doesn’t touch the spout at any point).

Collecting and Storing

Don’t expect the sap to run on schedule. Some days there
won’t be enough to collect and other days the buckets may
overflow. The fluid runs mainly in the daytime, so the late
afternoon is a good time to collect the day’s flow.

You will sometimes find frozen sap in the collecting
buckets. If there’s just a layer of ice lift it off and
discard it, since the ice is mostly water and the sugar
will be left in the unfrozen sap. If the entire contents
are solidified, you might as well discard it and start over
because it’s just too awkward to try to handle the big
chunks of ice.

Transfer the collected sap to your holding tank or tanks
but, before doing so, make absolutely sure that the
shut-off valve leading from the tanks to the pan is closed.
Otherwise, without realizing what’s going on in the
sugarhouse, you could easily fill the pan to overflowing.

For a different kind of treat later in the year, set aside
a gallon or two of the fresh maple juice as you’re
transferring it to your storage tanks. Take the sap you’ve
saved into the kitchen, heat it to 160°F, pour the
juice into sterilized jars and seal them. Put the jars away
in your basement or root cellar until a hot summer day, then try them as a light and refreshing drink!

Don’t plan to store the main body of your sap in the
holding tanks for more than three or four days because the
raw liquid does spoil. This spoilage is the result of
microbial growth which results in an easily recognizable
sour taste. Discard all spoiled or fermented sap. Don’t
try to save it. Even a small amount in a batch of
otherwise-good syrup will affect its flavor and color.

Commercial growers store their sap in large underground
tanks lit with blacklight to inhibit these bacteria, but the
best a small operator can do is (1) keep his sap cool to
slow down the microorganisms, (2) keep his holding tanks
covered to prevent outside contamination and (3) boil the
sap as soon as possible after collecting it.

Cooking Sap

Here comes the tricky part: reducing 40 gallons of sap to a
single gallon of silky smooth, clear syrup. You simply
can’t be too careful while “boiling down,” especially in
the beginning when you’re learning exactly how your arch
and pan will work together.

A pan full of cold sap takes a long time to heat up, even
over a roaring fire. After the juice begins to boil, it
still may be an hour or two before there’s a noticeable
reduction in the volume of the sap. At this point, things
seem to be moving very slowly and you may get tired of
checking the pan so frequently when nothing seems to be
happening.

Don’t get careless! After the sap concentrates to a certain
density things happen very quickly, and you may easily
leave the sugarhouse for what seems to be only a few
minutes and return to find a sticky burnt mass bubbling on
the bottom of the pan. If this happens, you may want to
salvage the syrup for yourself, but don’t try to “improve”
it by mixing it with more sap. Empty the pan, clean it out
and start over with all kinds of firm resolve to do better
next time. Above all, don’t get angry at yourself or anyone
else involved. It’s all part of the game.

Do take every possible precaution against burning the syrup. Even a slight scorching will taint its flavor and can
wipe out several days’ work. I’m not saying that
you can’t use the scorched product, but it
definitely won’t be up to standard for selling. If you’re not careful, you may find yourself with an
overstock of a smoky-looking liquid labeled “home use.”

Guard against this accidental burning by establishing a
“danger line” depth in the pan (ours is two inches). When
the bubbling syrup solution boils down to the mark, add
more sap from the holding tank (keep a reserve in the
storage vat for just this purpose). If you ever
miscalculate and suddenly find you have no sap on hand with
which to dilute a panful of syrup that’s in danger of
burning, quickly thin the boiling solution with water. It’s
much more effective to dilute an endangered batch of syrup
with water than to try to bank and diminish the fire.

Since wood fires are not easy to control, we found that we
had to start letting ours die down about three hours before
we intended to quit cooking for the day. We only boil sap
during the day, and we try to cook the syrup down halfway
in the large pan. That is, for every 20 gallons of sap
run into the pan (rough estimate), we expect to take off
one gallon for finishing. This rough-boiled syrup is then
taken to the house and cooked down by half again to make
syrup of the finished 40 to 1 ratio.

We soon noticed, as we drained off the half-cooked syrup
that a quantity of the sticky liquid stayed in the
sugarhouse boiling pan. Reluctant to waste this “gold”, we
at first left it in the pan until the next time we cooked.
That approach didn’t last long! We quickly learned that a
fire which looks black and cold in the evening can spring
to life during the night and bun such leftover sap to a
sticky mess by morning.

After one such experience, we put a plastic sheet over the
pan at night. Then if the sap started cooking, the steam
collected on the plastic and dropped harmlessly back to
dilute—and thus protect—the syrup once again.
Eventually, though, we dispensed with that idea and now we
just empty the pan completely at the end of each day. We
aren’t always sure when we’ll cook again and we prefer to
start afresh each time.

Every cooking operation will be different, and the general
guides I’ve given here are just pointers to help you in
setting up yours. Boiling syrup is a process that has its
own rhythm. You can’t rush it or force it, but only
discover and work with it. Above all, approach the task
with love and don’t be discouraged.

Finishing the Syrup

Finishing is a delicate process and must be watched
carefully. How do you know when the syrup is done? For your
owe use, you can just boil the sweetener to taste. If you plan to sell some, the maple syrup should weigh 11
pounds per gallon.

Your syrup will have reached that density when it boils at
a Fahrenheit temperature seven degrees above the boiling
temperature of water. That is, both water and sap
boil—at sea level—at 212°F. As sap is
concentrated into syrup, however, its boiling point is
raised by its increasing sugar content. The sweetener is
considered finished (and will weigh 11 pounds a gallon)
when the concentrating sugar has raised the syrup’s boiling
point seven Fahrenheit degrees. At sea level, then, when
maple syrup boils at 219°F (212 + 7) it is
finished, standardized syrup.

Bear in mind, though, that water does not always boil at
212°F. In general, its boiling point is lowered by one
degree for every 550 feet that it is elevated above sea
level. So, to finish maple syrup properly, you must first
determine the boiling point for water on your own stove and then add seven degrees to that figure. If you live at
an elevation of 1100 feet, for example, water should boil
on your stove at a temperature of 210°F, which
means that your syrup will be finished when it boils at
217°F (210 + 7).

Straining Syrup

Strain the finished syrup through a heavy felt bag while
the liquid is still hot. The process will go a little
faster if you have two of the bags. At that, hang the felt
sacks over a flat pan and be patient. The sticky
sweetener will run through quite slowly. If the syrup stops
dripping, it’s either too cold or the bags have filled with
sugar sand and need to be cleaned.

Bottling Syrup

Maple syrup will keep indefinitely if packed properly. When
bottling yours, be especially careful to (1) heat the
liquid to 160°F (2) sterilize all containers and
utensils by immersion in boiling water or—in the case
of plastic—by cleansing in a hot solution of 1/4-cup
Clorox to one quart water and rinsing hi previously boiled
water and (3) seal all containers of syrup airtight. When
the sweetener is stored in tin or plastic receptacles;
squeeze the containers until they just overflow (to force
out all air). The syrup will contract (creating a vacuum)
as it cools.

We put our syrup up in recycled glass containers. These are
now getting scarce in large sizes and we may be forced to
use some plastic this year. Of course, commercial
containers are available and you may want to try them. For
our purposes, we saw no reason to invest money in such
bottles and jars … money which would have to be added
to the selling price of the product. You may find, as we
did, that customers appreciate a “home grown” look and the
savings that go with it.

Selling Your Syrup

Before selling syrup, check with your county agent to find
out what if any regulations are imposed by your
state or local authorities. When I inquired, I was referred
to the Foods and Standards Division of the Department of
Agriculture. I wrote the agency a letter, stating
that I wanted to sell syrup and asking about regulations.

Some time later, a young man in a suit came to the farm,
told me he was from the Foods and Standards Division, and
asked to see our sugarhouse. With some trepidation I led
him across the flooded barnyard to our sugar shed with its
plastic on the windows, cracked concrete floor and a lack
of both water and electricity.

“Looks all right to me,” he said. “When you start making
syrup just sweep the floor, knock down the birds’ nests
and, well, just keep things clean.” The young man in a suit
handed me some instruction sheets (which proved to be very
useful), smiled, and departed. The pages informed me that a
gallon of syrup should weigh 11 pounds, should be clean and
free from fermentation and free from damage caused by
scorching, buddiness, objectionable flavor, or odor.

That’s all pretty clear except for the word “buddiness” … which is a flavor change that occurs at the end of the
season when the sap is of too poor a quality to make good
syrup. When the finished product starts tasting “buddy,”
it’s time to wrap up the operation and get on with other
spring projects.

Your syrup will probably sell itself if you let the word
get around that it’s available. Keep the prices competitive
and sell only your best quality stuff. In our area, syrup
is priced at $7.00 per gallon in the stores. We charge
$6.00 per gallon, which gives both the customer and
ourselves a break. If you can, get an idea ahead of time whether people will prefer to buy in pints, quarts, or
gallons. Surprisingly, most of ours sells in gallon
quantities but it may go differently in your area.

Consider your first year at syrup making a learning
experience and don’t plan to clear a whole lot of money on
the operation. Even if the returns from your initial season
are only enough to pay for your equipment, you should still
be able to swing into action the following year at hardly
any additional expense.

Cook With It

It’s almost superfluous to tell anyone how to use maple
syrup. The natural sweetener can be poured over pancakes,
cornbread, yogurt, or a dish of fruit. It’s also great with
baked beans and sweet potatoes, or you can stir a spoonful
into hot milk for a breakfast drink. In recipes that call for sugar, you may substitute 1 cup of syrup for 1/2 cups of sugar and reduce any liquid ingredients by 1/4 cup.