Tag Archive | maple syrup

The Art of Tapping Maple Trees

Maple syrup season is in full swing here at the farm.  I tapped three days ago and have filled the 50 gallon boiler tank.  Today is the first day I’ve fired the boiler.  By tomorrow evening we should have over a gallon of fresh syrup if all goes well.  Here at Phoenix Farm we make maple syrup much as the ancestors did hundreds of years ago.

Improvements were implemented over the years with the development of galvanized buckets to replace the old wood ones, better spiels and a more enclosed method of boiling the sap to keep the smoke out.  Syrup was once made in open containers over open fires.  Generally, we collect and process sap much as was done in the 1700s here in New England.  I prefer the old fashioned way.  Besides the nostalgia factor, using metal rather than plastic for long term sap contact alleviates concerns of plastic contaminant leaching.

There is an art to drilling and caring for tap holes using the old methods.  It is helpful to tap on a day when the sap is running so you know the hole is patent.  Dry holes are no good to anyone.  Sap season occurs when air temperatures are in the 40sF during the day and 20sF at night.

I use an antique manual bit and brace drill.  Choosing the correct drill bit size is essential.  Too large or small a hole can lead to tree damage.  The correct size to fit standard spiels is 7/16″.  The spiel must be straight and perfectly round to fit snugly in the drill hole.  The materials required for tapping are the drill, a hammer, a study twig about 6″ long, spiels and buckets with lids.  Some lucky people also have a spiel driver which is a solid piece of metal that fits inside the spiel and allows you to hammer it into the tree without a chance of damaging the spiel.  Someday I will afford a spiel driver!

If the trees are being tapped in mid to late March, try to drill on the more shady northern, northeast or northwest sides of the trunk.  This helps protect the sap gathering in the bucket from getting too hot in the warm afternoon sun.  Sap must be kept chilled or it can spoil.

The hole is drilled with a slight downward slant to encourage the sap to run out.  Too steep a drill angle will allow the spiel to pull out when it holds the weight of a full bucket.  The holes are drilled between two to five feet from the ground.  Trees can be tapped when they reach ten to twelve feet in diameter at chest height.  I put one bucket on smaller trees, two buckets on trees larger than fifteen to twenty inches in diameter.  We have so many trees in the maple orchard that we don’t need to triple tap any of them.  It is safe to place up to four taps on a very large tree.

Drill the hole smoothly and evenly with no wobbling of the bit.  You want the hole to be straight so the spiel will fit flush, containing the sap and sending it out through the spout into the bucket.  Sloppy, loose holes leak and leaky holes are a waste of sap and time.  Drill in about 2.5″ to reach the xylem, where the sap travels inside the trunk.  Use the sturdy 6″ twig to clean any drill dust out of the hole.  Then, use the hammer to gently tap the spiel on the wide area above the spout to drive it into the hole until it is just snug.

A spiel driven in too deep can split the trunk, greatly damaging the tree.  A spiel that is too loose is in danger of falling out when the bucket gets full.  When the sap starts to run out the spout, I clean the first of it away since it will be full of bits of drilling dust.  Finally, hang the bucket on the spiel and pop on a cover.  It takes me four to five minutes to complete each tap.

On a nice, warm afternoon in March when the sun is shining and the temperature is around 45F, the sap will practically pour from the drilled hole. Each tap hole produces between one to two gallons on a day when the sap is running well.  Temperatures below the 40sF, cloudy, cool days and chilly, windy days reduce sap production.  
After the trees are tapped, (we have twenty-five taps this year,) it takes two to four days to collect enough sap to fill the boiler pan, depending on the weather. The average ratio is forty gallons of sap produces one gallon of syrup. I suspect the soil in our maple orchard encourages very robust trees because they gives us a little more syrup per gallon of sap. More like 35:1.

Once temperatures are sustained above freezing at night, the maple trees begin to bud:  their leaf and flower buds are swelling in preparation for opening.  Budding signals the end of syrup season.  The sap becomes dark and bitter.  To me, care of the tap holes at the end of the season is as important as at the beginning.  Certainly, there are plenty of people who will swear that all you need to do is pull out the spiel and let the tree alone.  The sap that bleeds out in profusion from the holes is not a problem for the plant, some claim.  I ignore this advice.

It makes sense to me that a bleeding tree is losing energy.  It also is obvious that an opening that leads 2.5″ into the trunk of a tree is an invitation for insects and microbes to invade.  At the end of the season, I use the hammer to gently tap each spiel out of the tree.  I cut ash saplings selected to fit snugly in the opening.  Using ash rather than maple saplings reduces the chance of introducing disease into the tree.

I peel and whittle the sapling, as necessary, until it perfectly fits the hole.  Then I cut off a piece about 1″ long and tap it into the hole.  The chunk of sapling acts as a plug.  It greatly slows the loss of sap.  As the tree heals, new wood forms inside the hole and pushes outward against the plug, popping it out of the trunk.  Filling the hole completely with foreign wood so that the plug remains in the tree will damage the plant since it creates a dead space in the trunk.  In the photo above, the plug placed last year is on its way out of the hole.  Below is a well healed old tap hole.

Improper drilling can create catastrophic results for the tree.  When a tap is driven in too hard and the trunk splits, the wood below the hole dies.  A wide section of the truck is lost, resulting in a hole in the tree near the roots and much dead wood.  When I first started tapping maples, I made the mistake of splitting the trunk a few times and damaged several trees including this fairly young one below.  There is a big hole on the left lower side.  This tree still produces plenty of sap and is healthy, but some do not recover from the damage.  They are weakened to the point where they have to be cut down.

One of the joys of maple season for me is listening to the sap drip into the metal buckets.  Quite a cadence can be heard of a warm afternoon.  So that others might enjoy this rare tree music, I’ve made a couple short videos of the dripping sap.  Notice in the close-up shots how the hydraulic force appears to create a heartbeat-like rhythm.

Maple Syrup Season

Finally, maple season has started here at the farm.  Last week we tapped the maples and have 25 buckets collecting sap.  So far we got enough sap to make about 1.5 gallons of syrup.  The first batch is in the house ready to finish.

We do the majority of boiling outside, down in the woods where the sap is collected.  The evaporating pan sits on a wood fired stove.  This way most of the 39 gallons of water that must be boiled off to get one gallon of syrup will go into the atmosphere and not into our house.  When the syrup is reduced to about 4 gallons we carry it to the house and reduce it to syrup on the stove where the temperature can be better controlled.

I drill each tap hole with my antique hand drill, making a 7/16″ hole for the spile.  The sap runs out the spile and into the bucket.  On a good run day when the temperature is in the 40sF and it’s not too windy, a tree will nearly fill a 2 gallon bucket.  Older trees that are over two feet in diameter can have more than one tap in them.

When the sap is running well, the sound of drops plinking into buckets fills the maple sugar bush.  This time of running sap and early spring work passes quickly.  In a blink the snow will be melted away and the temperatures stay above freezing at night.  The trees start to open their leaf buds and sap season is over.

More on Maple Syrup


Maple syrup season is nearly finished for us.  Today is the last day.  We hope to gather enough sap to add to what is already in the boiler to make a gallon of syrup.  That will give us three gallons for the year.  We would have had four if I hadn’t burned the first batch.  Didn’t make it down to the maple orchard in time and the syrup boiled too low and turned to caramel in the evaporator pan.  Oh well, can’t cry over burned syrup.

The two samples above are from April 5 on the right and the 8th on the left.  The color is a lovely medium amber.  The body is thick, the way we like it.  No runny syrup for our pancakes!  The 4/5 syrup has settled out all the maple sand to the bottom of the jar, while the 4/8 still has small amounts of either suspended sand or sugar crystals making it cloudy.  I’m hoping it’s maple sand since that is an easier problem to deal with. Sugar crystals mean the syrup is too concentrated and it will be prone to forming large crystals on the bottom in storage.

Maple sand is the bane of syrup makers.  It is the naturally occurring minerals in the sap that the tree needs to live and is comprised mainly of calcium.  Maple sand does not affect the flavor of the product in any way while in storage.  It is just ugly to look at and grainy in the mouth.  No one wants maple sand on their pancakes so it must be removed from the syrup.  During the syrup making process in large evaporator systems, the sand forms sludge on the equipment that must be periodically cleaned away.  In our operation, the sand makes its presence known right after the syrup is bottled.  As the syrup cools to a certain temperature, the minerals are precipitated from the solution as tiny crystals.  These slowly settle out to the bottom of the container.

Our syrup is always filtered twice, but we rarely clear all the sand with filtering.  I run the sap through a strainer as I draw it off the evaporator to bring up to the house to finish.  This clears out any debris collected with the sap such as tiny bits of moss or bark from the trees. Then the syrup is strained again right before placing in the glass canning jars.  This catches some of the sand that has started to form.  The bulk of the sand precipitates after it cools for a couple minutes in the jars.  Syrup should be sealed before the temperature drops to 190 F from the 219 F it reached when it became syrup.  Allowing it to cool too much while exposed to the air will let mold or bacteria form in the sealed jars.

I’ve read two theories about what causes maple sand to precipitate.  The first is that this happens when the syrup reaches a certain density and the other theory is cooling causes the crystal formation.  I suspect it is due to both causes.  The best method I’ve found to remove the sand is sedimentation.  The syrup is allowed to sit in glass jars for several months.  When I’m ready to bottle for gifts, I open the glass jars and pour off the syrup, leaving the maple sand behind.  The syrup is then heated to 190 F, poured into new, fancy plastic syrup containers and sealed.  For home use we just pour from the glass jars until we reach the sediment. Then we enjoy it on pancakes, waffles, French toast, oatmeal, and my in favorite, apple pudding.

Pint and half-pint of Phoenix Farm maple syrup.

Pint and half-pint of Phoenix Farm maple syrup.

Maple Sap Season


Today I tapped the maple trees.  Bright sun, mild breezes and a temperature around 44 F made the sap run strong and steady.  I hiked down to the woods through knee deep snow, hitting a few drifts that came up to my thighs.  It was so warm I didn’t need a coat!

DSC03257The drilling of the tap holes I do with an antique hand-operated bit and brace.  The hole is fitted with a metal spile, a spout to guide the sap from the tree into the bucket.  Once the trees are tapped, the maple orchard is filled with the sound of sap dripping into metal buckets.  I love collecting sap in this old-fashioned manner.  Makes me think of my ancestors, the hardy New Englanders who toiled in much the same manner.DSC03252

There are 23 taps, enough to make a gallon of maple syrup a day if the sap runs well.  One gallon of syrup requires about 40 gallons of sap.  Some days it doesn’t flow very well due to weather conditions.  High winds or a daytime temperature below 40 F can slow the sap.

This year’s season is late.  January, February and March were all colder than normal and very snow filled.  We had a couple days here and there in the past two weeks when sap would flow.  All the maple syrup producers in the state are complaining.  The season sometimes starts in early February.

DSC03263The next week to ten days will be our season.  After that, the temperatures will go too high.  Once it doesn’t freeze at night, the trees begin to bud.  The sap turns dark and bitter, signaling the end of the season.  In the next few days I hope to make three to four gallons of maple syrup.  We’ll see how it goes.

Making Maple Syrup The Old Fashioned Way


One drop at a time fills the bucket

Out in the maple orchard there are a few days of hard work, then syrup season is over.  When the nights are below freezing and the days are warm and sunny with little breeze, sap runs freely from the sugar maples.  a3Good sap is clear, like water but if you  taste a drop, it is sweet.

Every day the sap must be collected so it doesn’t become too warm in the bucket and spoil.  We fill our 50 gallon stainless steel boiler pan until it contains at least 40 gallons of sap, enough to make a gallon of syrup. The sap in the photo below has been boiled down for about half a day and is acquiring the distinctive color of maple syrup.


Tim and friends gathering sap


Evaporator pan

Our evaporator is very simple:  a pan set on a fire box.  My brother, Bryce, welded the box for us to specially fit the pan. We use gasket to seal the juncture so no smoke escapes.  Smoke near the sap creates a smoky taste in the syrup that most people do not appreciate.


The evaporator set-up

a7To speed the evaporation process, we cover the pan with a stainless lid specially made to fit.  The lid is domed so precipitation and contaminants run off the top, and condensation from the boiling sap flows to the outside edges and drips off.  When the steam is heavy, the dripping from the edge of the lid is constant.
We use stacks of galvanized joist ties to lift the top off the pan so steam can escape.  Covering the pan makes the sap boil down twice as fast as when it is open. When the fire is roaring, the sap reaches a rolling boil and the steam pours out.  a9a10We can boil down 40-plus gallons of sap in two days.  If the sap is running well and we need storage room, we have some plastic garbage cans lined with food safe plastic can liners.  We bury the cans in the snow and cover them with a tarp to keep the sap cool.  This natural refrigerator works very well and lasts for the entire season.  a8The storage cans are under the blue tarp behind my husband, Tim.  The firewood, mostly dry pine from fallen trees and limbs and waste wood such as limbs from firewood trees, is stacked each year, mostly by Tim. Lots of dry, resinous pine, a mix of large and small pieces, makes a hot fire. We have been know to roast hot dogs and marshmallows over the fire for lunch during a day of sap boiling.


Condensation dripping from the edge of the pan lid

Care must be taken as the sap nears the bottom on the pan.  Too hot a fire can reduce the sap to syrup, then maple taffy and finally a burned mess.  Once the sap has boiled down to about four gallons on the bottom of the evaporator pan, it is time to draw it off.  The sap is carried to the house and finished on the electric stove in the kitchen.  Trying to finish the syrup in the woods is not practical.  The heat can’t be controlled well enough and the environment is not clean enough for bottling the finished product.


Drawing off the nearly finished product

The sap is strained twice through special felt-like filters, once before the final boil in the kitchen and again to remove the maple sand before bottling the syrup. Maple sand is a precipitate of minerals that forms when the sap becomes concentrated enough.  It must be removed or it will form a sludge on the bottom of the syrup containers.a14


The four gallons of near-syrup carried up from the sugar bush take a few hours to reduce down in the house.  Sap becomes syrup when it reaches a temperature of 219 degrees F.  We cook ours a little longer to make it nice and thick, the way we like it.  As the sap nears syrup stage the pot must be watched.  When it becomes syrup, it can easily boil up, expanding to several times its volume, to overflow and make a sticky mess of wasted effort.  Not to mention wasted maple syrup! The finished syrup is strained, then ladled into sterile jars.  Syrup must be maintained at a temperature of at least 180 degrees F while it is bottled to kill any mold spores or bacteria in the air.  Well canned syrup will keep for years.


Bottling the syrup



Full rolling boil


The boiling sap fills the house with a delicious maple aroma, unmistakable to anyone who has ever made syrup.  To me it is the true scent of spring.


Nice medium amber color maple syrup


Intrepid syruping buddies

The weather has now gone very warm.  I pulled all the maple taps last night and we are boiling down our second and final gallon of syrup.  Not bad for a syrup season that lasted about one week.  The maples are starting to bud, the snow is disappearing fast, and soon we will have all the rest of the spring work to keep us busy.

One Gallon of Maple Syrup


Big maple syrup producers would laugh because they make many gallons every day, but we’re pretty proud of our first gallon of syrup for this year.  Actually, nearly five quarts.  This picture was taken at night with no backlight so the color of the syrup looks dark.  It’s a medium amber color.

We like our maple syrup thick, not watery and runny, so we cook it a little longer than most commercial producers.  That’s why making your own is special.  You can have it just the way you like it.

We’ve collected about 24 more gallons of sap, it ran well today.  Hope to begin boiling our second gallon of syrup soon.

Tapping the Maples

sugar bush2

Maples in our sugar bush

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.


Drilling a hole

bucketThe 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.


Hand drilling with an antique drill

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.


Cleaning wood bits from the drilled hole

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.

place spiel

Tapping in the spiel with a hammer

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.

hang bucket

Hanging the bucket to collect the sap

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.sugar bush1