March 12, 2008, file photo, Len Price of Nutkin Knoll Farm in Newburgh works on tapping the maple trees in his sugar bush and hammers a spout extension into a freshly tapped tree. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

By Crystal Sands

When the temperatures shift and the snow and ice begin to melt near the end of our long winter, when the nights are still cold but the days warm to above freezing, the sap in the trees will start to run. It is during this time, usually around the end of February or the first of March here in Maine, that we can tap maple trees and extract the most delicious, sweet gift — sweet sap — which is used to make maple syrup.

The art of making syrup from the sap of trees goes all the way back to Native American tribes in New England, who used both the sugar and syrup in a variety of ways. According to the Maine Maple Producers Association, the sugar and syrup was so valuable that it was often used as a form of currency.

This sweet gift from the trees remains readily available to us today, and you do not have to have a sugar maple in order to tap and get delicious syrup. Black, red, and silver maple trees can also be tapped. It is important, however, to make sure the tree is healthy and at least 10 inches in diameter. Trees between 10 and 20 inches in diameter should have just one tap per tree. If a tree is larger than 20 inches in diameter, a second tap can be added.

Jebediah Beal, of Beal Family Farms in western Maine, has been tapping trees with his family since he was a child. Beal said it is best “to get everything together and set up before our start.” Beal emphasizes that buckets will work well if you are tapping trees on a small scale. A more complicated system with lines is necessary only if you are tapping on a large scale.

Supplies

— Maple syrup spouts (spiles)

— Buckets to collect syrup at trees (with lids to keep out rain and debris)

— Food-grade five-gallon buckets or other large, clean bins for storing sap collected from tree buckets

— Drill

— Pliers (for removing spiles when finished)

— Large pot for boiling (think 50 quart if possible)

— Access to outdoor burner for initial boil is ideal

— Maple syrup filters

— Filter stand

— Candy thermometer

— Jars for storing syrup

Tapping and collecting process

1. Drill a horizontal hole in a healthy tree to fit the size of your spout or spile. Be sure to drill on a day when the temperatures are above freezing.

2. Insert your spile and tap it in until it is sturdy. Hang your bucket with a lid on the hook of the spile.

3. Check your buckets at the trees a couple of times a day. When this bucket gets full, transfer the sap to your food-grade five-gallon buckets for storage until you are ready to boil your sap.

4. Pull your taps when you have enough sap to reach your goal or when the tree first shows signs of budding. It is critical to remove the taps when the budding starts. Keep in mind that it takes, on average, 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. However, the sap to syrup ratio will vary depending on the type of tree you are tapping. Sugar maples have the highest concentration of sugar.

Boiling process

1. It is best to do the initial boil of the sap outside, as the process takes some time and produces a lot of humidity, which can damage walls and cause wallpaper to lift and peel. Though it is possible to boil inside from start to finish, most try to do the initial boil outside. As you boil, the liquid will start to thicken and change to a darker color.

2. The sap can be boiled completely outside or transferred inside to a smaller pot for the final boil. The syrup is ready when it reaches 219 degrees Fahrenheit or 7 degrees above the boiling point of water.

3. Before your syrup can be put in jars, it must be filtered to remove the sugar sand. Use the filer and filter stand to filter your syrup.

4. Your maple syrup should be canned with hot (185 degrees Fahrenheit) and put into sterilized jars and seal them. Store your sealed jars in a cool, dry place and be sure to refrigerate after opening a jar.

For first-time tree tappers and syrup makers, Beal said to make sure the temperatures are above freezing during the day before you set your taps and to stop when the trees bud. “When the temperatures are above 65 degrees during the day for four to five days in a row, your season is probably over,” Beal said.

Beal also said to be sure to pull your taps then to “make sure your trees can start healing.”

The process may seem intimidating at first, but taking each step one at a time can keep you from feeling overwhelmed. Many Mainers tap their trees and take advantage of the beautiful gift our maple trees offer us because the rewards are great. Home-grown maple syrup from your own backyard is a treat to be treasured.

This first appeared in the March issue of Bangor Metro magazine, available on newsstands throughout much of Maine. Bangor Metro is also available by subscription.