In Missouri, we have a saying, if you don’t like the weather all you gotta do is wait like, 15 minutes. However, in February these temperature swings are perfect for tapping a sweet little sugar maple tree. Ideally, what you want is for the temperature to drop below freezing at night and get up to the 40’s during the day. What happens is that at night, the tree is all cold, lonely and constricted, then as the temperature rises it gets all hot, loosens up and lets its milky white sap flow. Okay, enough innuendoes (haha, in your end-o!).
But for real, we’ve wanted to make our own maple syrup for a long time and after consulting the wisdom of the wise and mighty Kurt of the Cassilly Crew (who is an experienced everythingman), we decided to give it a go this weekend. It was getting down into the 20’s at night and getting up into the 40’s-50’s during the day. So we hopped in the truck and went cruisin’ for some sweet little sugar maples. Oh baby! (For real, that was the last one)
First step in tapping a maple tree is correctly identifying a maple tree. The easiest way to do this is by using your eyeballs during the fall time. Maple leaves have a very distinctive 5 point shape and they turn a brilliant yellow/red/orange in the fall and basically scream, “hey! I’m a maple tree!”Â If you are not familiar with the shape of a maple leaf, just consult a Canadian hockey jersey.
Mark your trees with paint or tape or something while they’re easy to spot. Because if you don’t, you’ll have to spot them by the bark come winter tree tapping time, which is a little tricky. Not quite as tricky as rocking a rhyme right on time, but still kinda tricky. (10 points for Run DMC reference!…Yes!)
Maple trees have grey bark that many times in Missouri grows a light greenish flaky/scaly fungus on it. Â The bark on younger maple trees will be smoother than older trees. Older maples will look as through the bark is splitting, curling or peeling off. These “splits” can be fairly long and can help in identifying a maple tree in the winter. Once you kinda get what maple bark looks like, it’s pretty easy to spot. However, some oak trees’ bark can be similar to maple depending on age and species. Looking for dry maple leaves on the ground near a suspected maple tree is a good indicator. Maple bark looks like this:
Now that you’ve identified a sugar maple, it’s time to get to tappin’! You’re gonna need:
- stainless steel maple taps (typically 1/2″ OD)
- Cordless drill
- a drill bit (1/16″ smaller than your tap)
- pieces of clear tubing
- a bucket with a handle
- a lid for said bucket with a hole drilled in it for the tubing
- Optional: tape to mark your drill bit depth and paint to mark the tree for next year
Placement of the tap is important and there is some dispute over what technique is best. The conventional wisdom is to place the tap on the southern side of the tree. Other people say to place it just below the largest limb so that the sap from that limb will be directed into your tap as well. Others say not to put a tap between the crook of two limbs while some say that is the best spot. We basically tried all of these techniques at one time or another and we’ll see which one produces the most sap.
The first step is to drill into the maple tree at an easily accessible level. Typically, you want to drill about 2″-3″ into the tree at a slightly upward angle. This allows the sap to flow down into the tap. If you want to, mark your drill bit with a piece of tape so that you drill to the proper depth. You need to drill through the bark, through the harder outer wood and into the soft, light brown inner wood of the tree. The sap will start flowing out of the hole almost immediately. Sometimes, it will even start flowing out through the flutes of the drill bit while you are drilling.
Now, it’s time to pound in your tap. You can buy taps online or you can make them yourself out of 1/2″ stainless steel pipe with a 1/16″ wall thickness. Just cut the pipe into 4-5″ long sections and sharpen the lip of one side on a grinder. It can also help to split the sharpened end in half to help it drive into the tree easier. You can also drill a few holes into the sharpened end of the tap so that the sap flows into it easier. You’ll also need something to hang the bucket below the tap. You can use washers with a hole that is ever so slightly less than the diameter of your tap. Just tap the washer over the pipe so the bucket will have something to hang on. If you don’t like this idea, just drill a pilot hole and drive a stainless self tapping screw into the pipe about halfway and hang your bucket on that. Some people put a screw or nail under their tap and hang the bucket from that but we try to put as few holes in the tree as possible. Here’s what our taps looks like:
Now tap that tap into the hole you drilled, following the slightly upward angle.
You’ll begin to see the milky sap drip, drip, drip out of the tap. So get your clear tubing, bucket with drilled lid ready.
Last but not least, slide the tube over the tap and place it through the hole in the lid of the bucket and hang the bucket on the tap. It helps if the hole in the lid is the same diameter of the tube so that debris, leaves and dirt don’t blow into the bucket through the hole. If there is some debris, it’s no big deal but you’ll probably want to strain it out before you go to cook it down.
It is possible to tap a tree multiple times. However, this can be stressful on the tree and should be done with restraint. Don’t just go and drive 10 taps into a young tree or it might not be there for you to tap again next year. A good rule of thumb is you can place 1 tap per 1 foot of tree trunk diameter. Also, your next tap should always be at least 6 inches away and usually spiraling down the tree from the tap before it. It is possible to drive many taps into a tree without killing it. However, we’re not going to recommend you do it here.
It takes about 40 gallons of sap to cook down into 1 gallon of syrup. That may sound like a lot but it really adds up quick. Like, real quick. Our buckets only hold 2 gallons each so we will obviously need to store some sap until we’ve collected enough to cook down into a substantial amount of syrup. The great wise Kurt told us that sap can spoil if left in 45+ degree weather for long enough. The best thing to do would be to store all the sap in a fridge but who the hell has room in their fridge for 40 gallons of sap or the money for a sap fridge? So Kurt suggested storing it in white 5 gallon buckets or coolers on the north side of a building. The white bucket will help reflect the sun and keep the sap cool. And being on the north side of a building will keep it in the shade most of the time. His Kurt-ness also told us that to find a nice layer of ice on top of your stored syrup is a good thing. Make sure not to store the sap for any more than a week or you’ll really risk it spoiling. Basically, tap trees one weekend, collect all week and boil the next weekend. That being said, see you all next weekend for part two.