One fine spring day a few years back when my husband was cutting down some errant trees, he noticed sap pouring from the stumps. He wondered whether we might be able to capture sap and make our own syrup. Within hours we had rigged up a makeshift sap-collection system by drilling holes in a couple of maple trees, inserting clear plastic tubing that went into five-gallon food-grade buckets we bought from a local building supply store. We held the buckets in place with bungee cords lashed around the trees.
We were amazed when it worked. There were a couple of problems, though. Too much sap leaked out around the tubing. And insects and tree debris found their way into the buckets even though their lids were (loosely) attached.
We harvested little enough sap that we were able to cook it down on our kitchen stove after straining off the debris. It was delicious — light, pale, and sweet. Our experiment convinced us to do it again, but with a little more finesse. That summer, we marked our maple trees. (It’s much easier to identify maples when leaves are on the trees.) Next, we purchased taps (spiles), blue plastic sap collection bags, and metal bag holders to ensure debris-free sap—all from an online supplier.
The syrup-making season is short, usually less than a month. Conditions must be just right—night temperatures in the 20s and sunny days with temps in the 40s. Consistently. That’s when the sap rises. In our area, those conditions generally occur sometime between early February and late March, but with such unpredictable weather these days, we have to be on our toes or we might miss the season altogether. Once the trees begin to bud, it’s too late. The sap will produce bitter-tasting syrup.
The following spring, blue sap bags seemed to be everywhere on our property.
We got well over 100 gallons of sap that year—too much to cook down in the kitchen. Aside from the expense, the steam produced from the process fogs up the whole place and once it’s dried, every surface is covered with a sticky residue. We tried another makeshift approach using concrete blocks to make a small, temporary firebox outside. We placed a rack across the blocks and set a pot atop it.
Our system was awkward and inefficient. Everything was too small: the fire, the grate, the pot. Worst of all, our sap-collecting days were rainy, windy, and cold. Boiling sap into syrup, not to mention keeping our small fire going, required constant attention, and standing outside in the cold for hours on end day after day was no fun. There had to be a better way for backyard syrup production.
We bought a turkey fryer and a couple of twenty-pound propane tanks and moved the operation to our covered deck. We had invested a little more, but we thought it was worth it for the sheer pleasure of having our own homemade syrup.
With sliding glass doors leading to the deck, we could monitor the evaporation process from the cozy indoors, which also allowed us to take care of a few other chores during the hours and hours of pot-watching. But it’s not a good idea to take one’s eyes off the pot for very long, especially as the sap begins to thicken. It’s all too easy to end up with burnt caramel seriously stuck to the bottom of the pot. (Ask me how I know.)
Ten gallons of sap reduces to a mere one quart of syrup and that’s only if the trees you’re tapping are sugar maples. You can get equally delicious syrup from other maple varieties but, because their sugars aren’t as concentrated, more sap is required for the same amount of finished product — 20 percent more, in some cases.
We hauled two five-gallon buckets of sap with each trip from our trees. That’s about 85 pounds of watery sap per trip, just about enough to end up with a quart of syrup. This is how much sap it takes to end up with one quart of syrup.
Making syrup this way is no way to save (or make) money. There’s a reason real maple syrup costs more than the gooey stuff made from corn. We figured our first cup cost us a hundred dollars in materials alone. If we factored in labor, the real cost would easily quadruple.
Of course, the cost has dropped with each batch since most of our supplies were a one-time expense. Our method will never win any awards for efficiency if only because of the on-going propane expense. Still, we keep at it. At the end of a good season, we find ourselves with twenty or so pints of that sweet amber liquid, enough to enjoy a year’s worth of maple syrup over pancakes, on yogurt, with acorn squash, in smoothies, and still have plenty to share.
So, why do we do it? While living frugally is part of our mantra, homesteading—modern or not—isn’t always about frugality. It’s more about being in touch with nature, about discovery, about doing for oneself, as well as the self-confidence, self-awareness, and knowledge that go along with all that.
Besides, there’s nothing quite like the taste of warm maple syrup you've cooked up yourself.
There are some specifics you need to know to successfully make your own syrup, and you can easily learn how online. (Click here for one source.) But basically, it’s just five easy steps: mark trees, collect sap, boil (and boil and boil), filter, enjoy. That’s it—really.
Carole Coates is a gardener and food preservationist, family archivist, essayist, poet, photographer, modern homesteader. You can follow her Mother Earth News blog posts by following this link. You can also find Carole at Living On the Diagonal where she shares her take on life, including modern homesteading, travel, random thoughts and reflections, personal essays, poetry, and photography.
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