Sweetness is a powerful thing. If you've ever seen the eyes of a young child go wide with their first taste of sugar, then you know the face of someone absolutely gripped with pleasure. This first taste is likely the beginning of a lifelong love affair that most people never tire of. The conundrum then becomes how to keep our sweet tooth sated without treating ourselves to an early grave.
I don’t think there's an easy answer here, but I do think maple syrup is integral to how we might meet the world’s insatiable need for sugar and not kill ourselves, both by sugar-fueled disease and by gobbling up every last plantable acre in sugar beets or cane. Maple syrup production is especially helpful with the latter.
A "sugarbush" is an existing maple forest that humans make maple syrup from, leaving the ecosystem intact rather than removing the existing ecosystem to then replace it with agriculture. This is a beautiful model of how, if we shift our thinking about food production just a little into something that Sam Thayer calls "ecoculture," we can often get what we need from a place by interacting with it rather than erasing it.
I won’t make any "superfood" claims, but it’s worth noting that there is great bodily value in maple syrup beyond mouth pleasure. It’s loaded with minerals like manganese, zinc, calcium, potassium, iron, and magnesium, along with B-complex vitamins and anti-inflammatory phenols that have a whole suite of health benefits. That being said, it is sugar, which your body likes as a treat, not a staple. But using maple syrup in moderation comes naturally when you harvest your own. After you've hauled your sap buckets and boiled for hours, you can be sure you’ll savor every drop.
How to Tap a Maple Tree You don’t need to have a whole maple forest to make your own syrup. You really only need one tree, and don’t let anyone tell you that the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is the only tree you can make syrup with—they're snobs and they’re wrong. I’ve only ever made syrup with red maple (Acer rubrum), because that’s what I have access to. And I promise, no one’s pushing away my pancakes.
In blind taste tests, red and sugar maple syrups are indistinguishable. The only difference is that sugar maples have a higher percentage of sugar in the sap, (40 gallons of sap to 1 gallon of syrup) meaning you get more syrup for less work. You can also tap black and silver maple, along with many other hardwoods like birch and walnut.
Find yourself a maple tree no smaller than 10 inches in diameter. Make sure it’s healthy and that you have permission to drill a hole in it. You’ll want to tap trees as close to home as possible. It’s easy to be ambitious before the sap starts running, but try to be realistic about how far you're going to want to haul full buckets every day.
Once you've chosen your trees, now you wait for the right weather. Sap will not run until the daytime temperatures are above freezing, ideally in the 40s, and the nighttime temps are still below freezing, ideally in the 20s.
Traditionally, sap was collected into birch bark vessels, but now most people use metal or plastic buckets or other vessels like gallon water jugs. Whatever you choose, make sure it's food-grade material and has a lid. You need one vessel for each tap, as well as one 5/16-inch spout, which also come in metal or plastic. The metal equipment costs a little more, but it lasts a lifetime. There are metal spouts that come with a hook for hanging your bucket. This is a tidy system that avoids the use of plastic and tubing.
If plastic and tubing are your only option, you'll need 5/16-inch tubing to run from your spout down to a bucket on the ground. You'll need a holding tank to keep your sap until you can boil it. I use a 50-gallon barrel, but again, you can use anything that's food grade, and if you're only tapping a tree or two, it could be something as small as a 5-gallon bucket.
Once you've got your buckets, spouts, tubing, and holding tank, make sure they’re all clean. To drill your holes you need a portable drill or a brace-and-bit with a 5/16-inch bit, a hammer or mallet, and, if you’re using tubing, a blade. For boiling and finishing, you’ll need a non-reactive pot or hotel pan, an accurate candy thermometer, a filter, and sterilized jars or bottles.
When you get that first glorious 40-degree day after a 20-degree night, put on your boots, and if you’re doing multiple trees, a pack basket and a tool belt can be helpful. You want to place your taphole 2 to 4 feet from the ground (not from the snow, if there is any), in healthy, living wood. Hold your drill at a slight upward incline, and drill in and out in one continuous motion to 1.5 inches of depth. It’s helpful to mark this depth on your drill bit with a sharpie or a drill stop. The pulp that comes out should be light-colored and moist. If it's dark, that means it's non-conductive wood and you should drill your hole somewhere else. Brush out any pulp from the hole with a twig, push in your spout, and tap it in gently with your mallet. Tapping to the correct depth is kind of an art, where you listen to the sound of the tapping and when you hear a change in resonance and feel resistance, you stop.
Then you just hang your bucket, put on the lid, and listen for that sweet music of sap plinking. If your spout doesn't have a hook, slide the tubing over the end of the spout, set your bucket on level ground, drill a hole in the lid, cut your tubing long enough to reach down through the hole and into the bucket, and if there’s snow on the ground, cut it long enough to reach once the snow has melted.
Once the sap starts running, check your buckets every day and haul any sap to your holding tank until you're ready to boil. Make sure your holding tank is in the shade, in the coldest place possible as sap will spoil after a few days, especially when warm. I cannot recommend more seriously that you drink a lot of sap during this whole process, a glass of cold sap dipped from the bucket is one of spring's greatest and easiest joys.
How to Make Maple Syrup There are a few old wives' tales that say if you boil inside your house then your wallpaper will peel off or everything in your home will get sticky. These are silly stories, and you should ignore them. I don't know about your house, but after running the woodstove for months, everything in my place is begging for moisture. If you're boiling large quantities, it may get steamy, but that steam is purely water and contains no sugar, so it won't be sticky. You can also boil outside, which is faster, and you get to cook weenies over the fire and hang out with spring's returning birds, but you'll need to be vigilant about scorching, ashes, and debris in your syrup. I've found the happy medium is to boil outside until the sap turns golden, then finish inside.
I boil outside over a simple cinderblock firebox fitted for two hotel pans to sit suspended over the fire. You can also use a propane burner if a wood fire isn’t an option. If you have a small amount of sap, a stainless steel pot is perfect, but for larger amounts, a wide, flat pan really speeds things up.
Boil hot, skimming off foam and debris, until the sap turns golden. Then pour it through a filter into a pot to finish inside. Once you’re in this finishing stage, lower the heat and start checking the temperature regularly with your candy thermometer. Syrup is finished when it reaches 7 degrees over boiling (which varies with elevation) but is 219 degrees Fahrenheit here in Maine. While it’s still hot, pour it into hot, sterilized jars or bottles. Most people then screw on the lids, flip the jars over, and let them stand upside down for 10 minutes to ensure that the hot syrup kills any bacteria on the lid. This process is tried and true for even commercial producers. However, if you want to take the extra measure to prevent mold, you can pour your hot syrup into hot jars, leaving a half-inch of headspace, and then process your jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Your syrup is now ready to savor all year.