Making Maple Syrup: Mud Season Harvest

– Posted in: Mud Season

Tapping Maple Trees

Mud season is when the old-fashioned buckets and the new-fangled tubing used for collecting maple sap make their appearance up and down our street. We don’t tap maple trees for syrup, but some of our neighbors do–and so does my brother. Here is how he got started making maple syrup.–Editor

It all started at the hardware store. There I was, checking out, and I saw a basket with a dozen or so maple taps on the counter. I realized instantly what they were, even though I had never seen one before. At the time I was homeschooling my son and I thought “What a great project we could do together.” He could learn where one of his favorite foods comes from, and how it’s made. I bought six taps, having no idea why I should buy six, and not one, or all twelve. It just seemed right. Once I got them home I realized, “I need buckets.” A quick trip to the local stores revealed that they did not carry maple syrup buckets, and nothing I found was quite right, but I bought something, because I wanted to get started.

How Do You Get Started?

And how do you get started? You drill a hole in a tree – preferably a maple tree! There is nothing like the first time you see a mixture of wood shavings and water wrapping around your drill. Now, I said water, but, of course, it is sap, and a lot of people have mistaken ideas about what sap is. Some people think sap is syrup and they can just hold their plate of pancakes under the tap and breakfast is served. Some people think of pine pitch when they hear the word sap and think it will be a sticky mess. Maple sap is mostly water. It looks like water, it smells like water. You can discern a little sweetness to it, but just a little. It takes 30 to 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. Does it gush out? No, it drips out. It makes a wonderful symphony when you’re standing amongst your trees and the drops are all hitting their just-emptied buckets.

How Much Does Each Tree Produce?

Another question I get is, “How much does each tree produce?” I would say about 10 gallons a day is the best I’ve ever seen. Half that is much more common. Still, if you’re following the math, six taps, five gallons a day – you’re producing 30 gallons of sap a day. What are you going to do with it? Obviously you want to boil it down, but how? The time-honored method for all beginners is the spaghetti pot. It’s a good way to start, because the investment is zero. It’s a very slow way to make syrup, however, and most people who make syrup a second season have found a better way.

The Better Way To Boil It Down

I will skip my intermediary step and tell you that I now make my syrup in an evaporator, the same tool the professionals use, but scaled way down for the hobbyist. But even at the hobby level evaporators are not cheap. Mine cost just under a thousand dollars. They are made in small numbers, and they contain a lot of stainless steel. I’ve included some pictures of my evaporator, but if you imagine a woodstove with the top removed and replaced by a stainless steel pan, you would not be far off. The pan is divided up into channels, so that rather than having a 2′ by 3′ area for the sap to jumble around in, it is actually in an 8” by 9′ channel. This allows the sap-becoming-syrup to organize itself. The dense, almost-syrup gravitates to one end and the light, still-just-sap gravitates to the opposite end. You add new sap at the light end and draw off syrup at the dense end. I’ve left out a thousand details, but that’s the gist of it.

maple syrup evaporator front view

The evaporator is divided into three channels. Photo courtesy Jim O’Keefe

maple syrup evaporator side view

Burning wood provides the heat that reduces the sap to a syrup. Photo courtesy Jim O’Keefe

About the Author

Jim O’Keefe lives in Columbia County, NY with his wife and son.

If winter is slumber and spring is birth, and summer is life, then autumn rounds out to be reflection. It’s a time of year when the leaves are down and the harvest is in and the perennials are gone. Mother Earth just closed up the drapes on another year and it’s time to reflect on what’s come before.

~Mitchell Burgess in Northern Exposure

Comments on this entry are closed.

Silvinha April 10, 2014, 1:49 am

i make homemade yogrut every week!soooo yummy!my husband has lyme disease and cannot have sugar but NEEDS those probiotics- it is CRAZY how much sugar is in even plain yogrut!he can have fruit, though so i buy a bag of frozen organic mango chunks, but them in a pot over med heat with a bunch of water and just cook it down until it is total goo- you have to stir every so often and just keep adding water until it is gooey enough… then i add a heading spoonful in the bottom of every jar.yum yum yum!

Alistair March 10, 2011, 8:35 am

How very interesting, so much sap has to be collected, I would never have believed that a tree could provide so much. Making maple syrup is not something which goes on in the UK to my knowledge, could be because we dont have the Manitoba Tree. I read with great interest that it was the Indians of the great lakes and St Lawrence river regions that discovered the process of making maple syrup.

commonweeder March 9, 2011, 8:16 am

We have a number of syrup makers in our area – all using tubing – but some of my neighbors like to put out a few taps and make a gallon for themselves.

Carolyn @ Carolyn's Shade Gardens March 8, 2011, 9:48 pm

We can’t make maple syrup on our own property but have gone to a local arboretum to do it—on a homeschooling trip! I homeschooled my two older boys who are now in college and am currently homeschooling my 13 year old son. I should say I arranged their learning because I really didn’t teach them myself but they didn’t go to school either.

Anna March 8, 2011, 9:01 pm

What would you say the best way to store maple syrup long term? If we ever get enough for long term storage. This is our first year trying this here in Northern Wisconsin.

Jim O'Keefe March 9, 2011, 1:25 pm

Maple syrup really doesn’t spoil that easily due to the high sugar content. I can mine in reusable canning jars, but most producers pour it hot into plastic jugs. Sometimes if stored improperly a mold will grow on the surface and I’ve been told that you can remove that and bring the syrup to a boil and you’re good to go.

Patrick's Garden March 7, 2011, 10:19 pm

Making maple syrup occurs in the Kansas City area. I wrote a column about underused shade trees that included the Sugar Maple. I stated sugar maples in this area are less productive than those in the NE based on feedback from my local extension agent. I received an impassioned reply from a local man who is tapping trees his father started over 30 years prior. He believed his trees were just as productive.

Jim O'Keefe March 8, 2011, 9:40 am

Perhaps he meant that the region was less productive because there are less sugar maple trees. I can’t think of a reason why individual trees would be less productive. As the climate gets colder or warmer there are fewer sugar maples in the forest mix. NY and VT seem to be in the sweet spot.

AmyO March 7, 2011, 9:57 am

It was such a memory rush reading your brothers start making syrup! Wanting to show my kids where maple syrup comes from started us on a project for just one season of sugaring was such fun and very interesting. We had found a few taps in our attic, borrowed buckets from a friend and collected the sap into a large plastic trash bin in the back of my old Subaru. Our friend then boiled it down and at the end of the season gave us 1 gallon of syrup! We were so happy with ourselves and were left with great memories!

Kai March 6, 2011, 11:25 pm

It must be a dream to have access to straight-from-the-tree fresh maple syrup.

Marianne Hardy March 6, 2011, 7:18 pm

I started making maple syrup in Parishville when I was raking under a tree and it kept dripping on me and when i looked up , it was a broken branch torn in a storm and it occurred to me that this was a maple tree. We tapped it and made a total of 1/2 cup of syrup.We were proud of every table spoon! Here in Adams, NY, with the same eager hopes of sweetness, we put 5 taps in intending on that sme 1/2 of cup and lo and behold we hit the payload and filled 5 pint jars of maple syrup. i get excited just think about it

Donna March 6, 2011, 6:52 pm

Here in NY we have lots of Maple Sugaring going on especially near you Kathy…I used to have neighbors who also made Maple Syrup and my husband’s step father had land he rented to folks who also made maple syrup and we used to get some…there is nothing like it….

Lynn March 6, 2011, 6:50 pm

So good to hear how it’s done. I can’t wait to start seeing maple buckets in our neighborhood soon!

Frances March 6, 2011, 3:38 pm

What a delightful read and seeing the photos really helped bring the image sharper of how it is done by your brother. I loved hearing the story of you buying six taps, too. How did your syrup making turn out? We did this with our girl scout troop in PA at a Nature Preserve. There was snow on the ground and the fire cooking the syrup was perfect to warm us up. 🙂

Mr. McGregor's Daughter March 6, 2011, 3:28 pm

Making maple syrup must be a New England thing to do. I know of no one here in Northern Illinois who taps maples. Does it harm the trees?

Jim O'Keefe March 8, 2011, 9:53 am

Technically you are injuring the tree, but it heals. Maple trees will naturally get similar or worse injuries from broken branches, freeze cracks, insect entry points etc.There are rules of thumb as to how many taps you can put in a tree of a certain diameter, and how close to put the holes the next year. Cornell University does a lot of the sugar maple related research in New York: