Last spring, I decided that I’d try to collect some maple syrup from a few of my many maple trees. So, I marked down which trees were maples, and when the weather started to get warmish, I struck:
There’s a commitment issue that comes with this process, it turns out. For one thing, the sap will come when it comes and you have to be there to collect it and boil it down. But, the amount of sap you have to handle makes it tempting to industrialize the process a bit. In general, that looks like stringing wires between trees, zip-tying silicone hose to the wires, and pulling them all back to a larger catch bucket that doesn’t need to be emptied as often. But if you go to that trouble, you’re going to have to do it for years, or else you’ve built all the infrastructure for bulk collection.
My idea was to make some syrup for some pancakes. That’s it. It turns out that the sap has about a 40:1 ratio – you need 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. So there is a lot of sap handling and boiling.
Now, boiling seemed like it’d be easy. I’ll put a propane ring in the shed and hook it to the huge tank outside, then boil sap. Except it turns out that with propane lines, not much is easy – the header that the propane company guy left was some sort of 1/2″ flare coupling, but the propane ring I had used one of those fat plastic connectors for a small propane tank. No problem: I rigged up a line with some adapters and a quick connect, then ran that down to a 1/8 pipe segment and threaded that into the ring. But it turns out that the manufacturers of the ring hid the propane jet inside the bolt that connects the line. I went over to the shop and sat there for a while trying to think how to fix it – I didn’t have a 1/8-26 MIP die (I did have a tap!) so I couldn’t make my own jet-holder on the lathe. So, I took a piece of 2-ended threaded connector, and ran a tap into it (8-32) so I could thread in one of the copper wire-guide tips for my MIG welder. The hole in those things is a very nice size for a jet.
It only took a ridiculous amount of time to rig that up. But, I have 2.5gal of sap, which ought to give me enough syrup for a waffle.
I have to admit I am beginning to think that maple syrup is underpriced – you can get 1qt at the store for about $25. So far I don’t have much in terms of infrastructure costs (I don’t think I will go “full production”) but it looks like just buying the stuff is the best way to get it.
Looks like a fun project. Be prepared to burn through a lot of Propane simmering that slightly sugary water down to a syrup.
A former student of mine had a major syrup operation on his property. Best syrup I’ve tasted and zero particles. He used to say that when March came around, he would not sleep for about two weeks, instead just boiling sap. His propane bill (this was maybe 15 years ago) was $800 for the season. He had a bunch of regular customers (including me, once he told me about it, and I tried it). He also had some unkind things to say about the sap made by the local Amish. Never tried it, but he claimed that they would “tap anything” and were not particularly careful with the boil-down process. He, on the other hand, had very large, mature sugar maples.
Of course, you could also go to the local grocery chain and buy some corn syrup with maple flavoring for a lot less (yecch).
I should also mention that our house is surrounded by red maples (and beech and hemlock). Sometimes in spring a branch will break resulting in sap flowing down the side of the tree. I have watched grey squirrels straddle the truck and lick the sap repeatedly over the course of several days. The sugar content in a red maple is not as high as a sugar maple, but you could make syrup out of it if you wanted to. It might be more like 50 or 60 gallons of sap versus 40 to get one gallon of syrup.
We had seven sugar maples in the front yard when I was growing up, so one year we decided to make our own maple syrup.
I don’t know where the taps came from, but they were metal and had hooks as part of their design. They are probably still somewhere in the barn. We used galvanized steel buckets to collect the sap for a couple weeks, ending up with probably about 60 gallons of sap. I remember that a couple times we had a freeze while the sap was running and my sister and I would break off frozen icicles of sap off the taps to suck on.
After the first week, when we had about 30-35 gallons of sap collected in empty cider jugs, the boiling down started. Every day another few gallons were added to the kettle on the stove. This went on for over a week, certainly after we had stopped collecting the sap. Cooking meals were a little difficult with the kettle continually on the stove.
Eventually we had made our own maple syrup, then concluded that buying the stuff at the store was probably easier and cheaper. Of course, even then a lot of the syrup you got at the store was maple-flavored sugar syrup rather than the real distilled sap; but still, as long as it was an excuse to pour sugar over pancakes we thought it was good enough.
There is a neighbor down the road who makes syrup every year, but I think he also heats with wood and just lets the sap simmer on the woodstove.
We’ll be interested in seeing the final product.
“I have to admit I am beginning to think that maple syrup is underpriced – you can get 1qt at the store for about $25”
No, overpriced. In Ontario you can get 1 litre at the local grocery store for $16 to $17, Cdn $.
It will be one very special waffle.
It does remind me of a mate of mine back when I was a student. He was teaching himself to cook going through a recipe book. Well he got to the tomato soup, bought the tomatoes, peeled and seeded them, fried with some onion and seasonings, simmered, sieved (no cheap whizzers back then), reheated the orange liquid and served it up … to the unanimous verdict that it tasted just like Heinz tomato soup. Nevertheless I would try making male syrup too, if only the once.
Marcus: you tree-vampire you.
I’m told that maple syrup has terroir. Your maple syrup will be YOUR maple syrup.
Reginald Selkirk says
@4 has a point – you could do the boiling with maple wood instead of propane, which would have the extra thrill of probably violating the Bible.
The hottest thing in maple these days is bourbon-aged maple syrup, in which the syrup is aged for some months in used bourbon barrels. Here is an example, but since it is trendy you can find many suppliers.
Marcus Ranum says
you could do the boiling with maple wood instead of propane, which would have the extra thrill of probably violating the Bible.
Funny you mention that. There are some really clever wood stove designs centered around a 5gal bucket filled with concrete, I have a location right outside my shop that is damp gravel in the spring – perfect for a simple wood burner. Oak scrap can be obtained from the sawmill. Maybe next year!
The oak barrel thing had also come across my radar screen. A friend of mine was trying to talk me into looking into making small oak barrels but coopering is laugh out loud hard. On the other hand it did occur to me that I could easily make oak boxes. Why not? A charred oak box can be stacked horizontally with a gasketed lid screwed down… The same box could be used to ash dry a ham. See, there is a method to the madness.