Backwoods Maple Syrup
Updated: Feb 25
As cabin fevers grip begins to lessen and sunny days and warmer climates begin to hint at the onset of Spring, many a woodsman's hearts go aflutter for the sweep sap that's beginning to flow in the trees of the wilderness. Syrup season or sugaring season as many old-timers call it, is marked when the temperatures go above freezing in the daytime hours and below freezing at night, this up and down pattern keeps the sap flowing in trees and only occurs for a short period of weeks as winter fades and the onset of spring begins, generally early February through late March. There are numerous products to be made from sap such as water, sugar, syrup, and candies. Maple water, which is pure maple sap that has been filtered to remove bark and debris, is commercially sold as a drink that is full of electrolytes, prebiotics, and antioxidants with half the sugar content of coconut water.
Maple candy is made by boiling syrup until it reaches 235 degrees F (110 degrees C) on a candy thermometer. Remove from heat and cool to 175 degrees F (80 degrees C) without stirring. Once you reach 175 degrees F, rapidly mix with a wooden spoon or blender until the mixture becomes creamy, then add in nuts if desired. Pour into molds or a shallow foil-lined pan and allow to cool to room temperature before serving. Maple sugar is achieved by heating syrup to about 255-260 degrees F (123-127 degrees C) on a candy thermometer; remove from heat and pour into a preheated bowl which will allow it to change consistency into granules without cooling too quickly. By continually mixing the syrup by hand or with a blender on low speed, the syrup will turn into large granules until finally, it turns into smaller sugar granules. Just keep mixing until you reach your desired consistency.
But let's get to the important part of this article, the liquid gold we call syrup. There are actually several trees that produce sap in adequate quantities to make syrup besides Maples such as Birch, Sycamore, Black Walnut and Box Elders, all possessing varying amounts of sugar content. For this article, however, we will focus on the tapping of Maple Trees and no, the type of maple does not matter! You can tap sugar, silver, red or black and still get sap which can make maple syrup and yes, you can mix it all together. The process of making Maple Syrup isn't difficult, it is, however, very labor-intensive and is best done outdoors as the steam from the boiling process leaves a sticky residue on anything it comes into contact with; so unless you want sticky maple walls in your kitchen, set up a spot to work outside.
You'll need to get some basic equipment to begin:
Spiles (which can be made)
Drill bit (sized to spiels)
Sap Collection Jugs with hoses or Buckets
Sap collection Bin (tote or trash can)
Cinder blocks to make evaporator base
For the main collection bin, we used two brand new 50-gallon trash cans that were cleaned thoroughly with bleach. If you only plan to make a small amount, any plastic tote with a secure lid may be used. This will allow you to collect and keep sap for later use as needed or as time permits you to make use of it. It takes roughly 40 parts of sap to make 1 part of syrup which equates to about a 10 gallon or maple sap will make 1 quart of maple syrup ratio.
The base for the evaporator system can easily be constructed from cinder blocks. Just stack them in such a way that you can easily feed your fire while maintaining a fairly regular source of heat. The evaporator pans can be any food-grade steel, we used a stainless steel sink with a four-inch deep well and welded stainless caps over the drain holes. Anything deeper than six inches will be more difficult to maintain as it requires more fuel and labor to keep it boiling. On one side of our sink evaporator, we used a steel roasting pan as our warmer. We would pour cold or frozen sap into the warmer to preheat it for the evaporator which was always at a constant boil.
Now, when it comes to tapping trees, you want to choose a spot on the tree about or just above knee-high, preferably following a large root line. The spile is the tube-like device that is inserted into the drilled hole, which will ultimately serve as a funnel to pour the sap from the tree into your desired container. This season plastic spiles we used with a length of tubing attached which permits the sap to flow into a thoroughly cleaned and sanitized milk jug. Just make sure to drill through the cap of your jug using the same diameter drill bit as your tube to prevent bugs or other debris from getting into your sap.
Space your spiles about every six to eight inches apart if you use place multiple spiles in the same tree. Drill at an upward angle which will permit the sap to flow out naturally. If the sap is running good, it will run similar to a faucet!
When hammering in your spiles, use a wooden mallet which will help keep you from breaking them. Wooden mallets permit you to better hear when the spile has bottomed out in your drilled hole and when you may be hammering too hard. Only use enough force to seat the spile while avoiding damage to the tree.
Once you have the spile properly seated and the collection tubes run into your containers, you just sit back and wait for the sap to flow. Check your containers daily and dump them into your holding tank until your ready to begin the evaporation process.
Once you have enough sap collected to begin the evaporation process, the real work begins. Stoke the fire under your evaporator and fill the pans with sap. Bring the sap water to a rolling boil and maintain it throughout the day, continually adding fresh sap water until it's all been boiled which is often an all-day process. Once it has achieved a darker color and has reached a temperature of 213 degrees F. It is at this point you will want to take your sap and move it to a finishing pot. The finishing pot is generally a stock pot on a propane burner with a thermometer which permits the user to more readily regulate the heat being supplied to avoid burning the syrup or accidentally turning it into sugar.
Generally speaking, water boils at 212°F. However, for every 500 feet in elevation above sea level, that temperature generally drops by 1 degree. This may not seem very significant, but for me, it means the difference between burning my syrup and not as in my backyard next to my home, I'm at 700ft of elevation and I have found water boils right at 212°F. But in the back of my farm where I camp, I am at 1000ft of elevation and water boils closer to 210°F. Syrup boils at 7.1°F (3.94°C) above the boiling point of water. So, when you reach that boiling temperature in your finishing pot you officially have syrup. So, depending on where I am on my property, that would be 217°-219°F, too little heat will not create the sugar content I need for syrup, which will lead to sugar water whereas too much heat will lead to crystallization of the sugar once bottles because again, it started to burn and turn to sugar. It's a fine process that takes time to master, but to see what you need to boil your syrup to on your property just perform a test boil with a pot of water. See what temperature it boils at, then add 7° and that will be just right for you.
The final step you have before bottling it is to do a final filter. This will remove any potential sugar sand or other impurities you may have from the boiling process. By straining the syrup through a filter such as a coffee filter or even a cotton makeup pad it will be as pure as it can be and would be ready for bottling.
I'd like to thank John Dosch of Pass it on Wilderness Skills in Washington, Indiana for inviting us out to take part in his annual Maple Syrup class. To learn more or to purchase John's Amazing Maple Syrup visit passitonwildernessskills.com