The temperatures are finally above freezing. Sap is running in the maples. Time to tap the trees and make syrup. On the farm we have a maple orchard, also called a sugar bush. The area is thinned to mostly sugar maple trees. We tap, or drill small holes, to extract sap from trees at least 1.5 feet in diameter. Our operation is low tech and much the same as was done a hundred or more years ago. We bore the holes by hand with an antique brace and bit drill, collect the sap in buckets hung on the trees, carry sap in five gallon buckets by hand to the boiler and boil down the sap outside over a wood fire.
The ideal temperatures for collecting sap are when days are in the 40s F and nights in the 20s. Once the night temperatures go above freezing, the trees begin to bud their flowers and leaves. When the trees bud, sap season is over. The sap gets dark and strong tasting. Due to the vagaries of the weather, the syruping season is late and we will be lucky to get one good week of sap collecting this year. Some years the sap will run well from February until April.
Today the weather is glorious, sunny, mid-forties with a slight breeze. The snow is almost three feet deep, so it’s slow going in the maple orchard. We set all twenty-five of our taps and the sap is running fast. A good tap hole drips more than once per second.
First we drill holes of a particular diameter to fit the metal spouts, called spiels, that go in the trees to direct the sap into the buckets. The holes are drilled in a couple of inches to where the sap flows inside the trunk of the tree. The secret to a good, non-leaky hole is using the right sized drill bit and keeping the drill steady as it goes in, with no wobble. After drilling, the hole is cleaned to remove any cast off drilled wood.
The spiel is tapped in just enough to hold it, too much and the living wood can split around the hole. Splits can severely damage the tree, even ruining a whole side of the trunk.
Galvanized buckets with lids are hung from the spiels. These collect the sap. Large buckets hold 2.5 gallons. On a good sap run day, a tree will fill a large bucket. Older, wider trees can have two or more taps. To get a gallon of maple syrup, approximately forty gallons of sap are required. The sugar content varies between trees, we think our trees are pretty sweet! Our boiler holds fifty gallons and we can make about 1.5 gallons of syrup from a full boiler. Our trees are very healthy, with an ideal location that is well drained, protected from wind and sunny.
Once all the holes are drilled and the buckets secured, we are on the way to collecting enough sap for our first boil. Depending on the weather, this can take two or three days. In my next maple syrup post, I’ll explain the boiling process.