1. Find some maple trees. You can make maple syrup out of any variety of
maple tree however most folks would agree that sugar maple trees (also called
hard or rock maples) are best. I tap about 2/3 sugar maple and 1/3 red maple trees
because that is what is growing on my property. The sugar maple leaf has a ‘U’
shaped valley between the lobes. Here is a short video on how to identify the sugar
maple tree. http://video.about.com/treesandshrubs/How-to-Identify-a-Maple-Tree.htm
When scoping out maples to tap, think ahead. Before you can make maple syrup,
you will need to lug 5 gallon buckets full of sap back to your storage tank; some
sugarmakers only tap along the roadside for this reason. If you have a snowmobile
you can comfortably expand your range or if you are looking for a good upper body
workout you can tap way off the trail but plan ahead! Remember that a sled or
snowmobile will work great at the beginning of the season when snow is plentiful
but by the end of most seasons, the snow will be mostly gone requiring an ATV or
fat-tire wagon or cart for sap transport.
2. Get a mentor. Connecting with a mentor that you can ‘tap’ for information is probably
the most important advice I have to offer. Most sugarmakers love to share their knowledge
about making maple syrup, that is why I wrote this article. If you don’t know any sugarmakers
personally, start asking your friends. If you live in the maple belt, someone in your friend
network knows someone who makes syrup. The book Backyard Sugarin’ by Rink Mann is
the next-best thing to a human mentor. It is available through Amazon and is the bible of
making maple syrup on a shoestring budget. I highly recommend it!
Sometimes your local maple syrup supply dealer can be a great source of information and
advice. ALWAYS bring a list of questions when you visit but be careful, it is very easy to spend
too much of this week’s paycheck on maple supplies! On this page, I have included links to
some good priced basic maple syrup supplies on Amazon but I would encourage you to make
it yourself whenever possible and shop locally if you have the option.
|3. Collect, borrow, purchase or make the essential tools
required for collecting and storing maple sap. These include:
taps (also called spiles), buckets, lids, lightweight hammer, snowshoes, and a
few clean 5 gallon plastic buckets for collecting. The 5 gallon bucket is the
workhorse of collecting sap. You might do well to purchase a few used
food-grade 5 gallon buckets or some new buckets at a home center. You will
also need a new, thoroughly rinsed, (unused) plastic garbage can with lid for a
sap storage tank. Clean 1-gallon milk jugs make wonderful sap buckets for the
beginning sugarmaker, they are free and do not require lids. See Rink Mann's
book for how to hook them to a tree.Keep your eyes open for sap buckets and
lids at yard sales in the off-season; sometimes you can find some great deals.
Because maple sap has such a delicate flavor, it will pick up flavors from any
strong smelling bucket or tool. Anything that will come in contact with your sap
needs to be clean and odor free. Scented soaps, rusty buckets, bleach and
other strong smelling/tasting substances can cause off-flavors in your syrup and
should be avoided when cleaning or selecting your equipment. For this reason,
even the large 10,000+ tap operations rarely use soap for cleaning, just clean
water and elbow grease. The 'sniff test' is your best guide for selecting tools and
equipment, how does it smell? Leaving things outside in the sunlight for a few
weeks can do wonders for off smells, I think it is the UV light and fresh air.
This is a good time to emphasise that at the end of the season, all gear and tools should be cleaned/scrubbed with water
and DRIED before storing for next season. You do not want to begin next season with moldy buckets because you
neglected to clean and dry them the year before. Stainless is king! I am always on the lookout for used stainless steel
that can be recycled in my maple operation such as kitchen tools, pans, buckets and old stainless steel sinks. Even
stainless tools found at yard sales and the dump can be cleaned up like new for use in your maple operation.
|4. Tap your trees and hang the buckets. I recommend that first-time sugarmakers not tap more than 10 trees.
The sap you will gather from more than 10 trees can be overwhelming; I know a few families who have never tapped again
because they were too ambitious with the drill their first year making syrup. Knowing when to tap is an art and your
maple mentor should be consulted before you begin. If you tap too early, you risk having things sit for weeks frozen solid.
You will be tempted to tap your trees on the first warm day in January or February, don’t do it! Always tap when the
temperature is above freezing. Tap healthy trees that are 12” in diameter or greater. If your tree is wider than 20” you can
put a second bucket on it. Using a cordless drill and the correct size drill bit for your taps (7/16” for the traditional tap), drill
your hole angled slightly upward (so the sap will run out easily) to a depth of about 1 ½” in good wood. You want the drill
bit to go STRAIGHT IN the tree and straight out. To best do this, I like to stabilize my body by spreading my legs and by
putting 2 hands on the drill. You are trying to prevent 'ovaling' the hole. An oval hole will allow sap to leak out around the
tap/spile. Using a small hammer, gently tap in your spiles. You want the spiles to be placed snugly into the tree but not so
deep that it splits the wood above and below the hole. This will cause much of your sap to run down the tree trunk and not
into your bucket. Splitting your tree from an over-driven tap is one of the few mistakes a beginning sugarmaker can make
that could cause long-term damage to your trees (speaking from experience here!) Trees are much more likely to split if
they are frozen, so always tap when the temp. is above 32 degrees F. Hang your buckets and lids on your taps and pray
for favorable weather. The best sap runs happen when nighttime temperatures are in the low 20’s and daytime temps are
around 40. Tapping is an art that can only be learned over time, offering to help your mentor when she is tapping her trees
will give you valuable firsthand experience.
Check out the first YouTube video we ever made here: HOW TO TAP A MAPLE TREE
|5. Collect and store your sap. You should collect the sap each day it runs. Your clean 5 gallon buckets, combined
with a sled and snowshoes are the most efficient way for the backyard sugarmaker to collect sap. A food-grade plastic
barrel or a clean new garbage can secured in the back of a pickup truck works well for a roadside sap collection setup.
Sap has the same shelf life as milk, so keep it as cold as possible until you are ready to boil. This can be done by setting
up your clean garbage can sap storage tank out of direct sunlight (on the north side of an out-building) and banking it with
snow. Kept cold, you can wait until the weekend until you boil. I use orange spring clamps to clip a clean (but unscented
from stinky laundry detergent) sheet or tee-shirt over the top of the storage tank when filling tol help strain out debris like
bark, moths and shavings from your collected sap. Try and boil your sap as soon as possible after collecting. Bacteria will
begin growing in your sap as soon as it leaves the tree but refrigeration slows the process. When the bacteria reproduce
enough, you can see them in the form of cloudy sap. The bacteria are harmless to the finished product because they will
be killed when you boil BUT (and this is big…) they feed on the sugars in the sap. So the longer you wait the less syrup you
will be able to make from your sap! We try to boil within 24 hours of collecting unless it turns cold and things freeze up,
then we safely have more time until boiling.
Speaking of ice, because sap runs when the tree freezes at night, you will frequently find ice in your buckets when you
collect. The ice forms from pure water not from the sugars so if you gently lift the disc of ice out of the bucket and let the
unfrozen sap drip off, you can safely throw the ice away. This will help concentrate the sugars and less boiling time will be
required. Ice in buckets has an added bonus of helping to keep your sap refrigerated during the day before you collect.
On a bet, a friend once collected a 50 gallon barrel of bucket-ice and let it melt. She tested the batch with a sap
hydrometer and it contained essentially no sugar, so pitching the ice to concentrate your sugars is a good practice.
6. Time to setup the evaporator! The purpose of
the evaporator is to remove the (unwanted) water from your
sap through boiling. As the water is removed through
evaporation, the faintly sweet sugars in your sap become
concentrated, eventually leaving you with pure maple syrup!
7. Fill your pan with sap and build a fire under it!
The more aggressive the boil the better. As the level in your pan begins to go down as a result of evaporation, you will
need to add more sap. You can ladle cold sap into the pan from your storage tank but you will notice that this will kill the
boil. Anytime the pan stops boiling you have reduced the efficiency of the process resulting in a longer evaporation time.
An effective sap injector is to take a large clean metal can and poke a small hole in the bottom/side with a nail. Because
the hole creates a constant trickle of a very small amount of sap you should be able to maintain a boil in the pan. Every
year for the past 20 years, I have experimented with new sap pre-heater ideas. The hotter the sap is when it enters the
pan, the better. You can use copper tubing or pipe to construct a pre-heater. Generally you need to utilize heat from
someplace in or next to your evaporator to pre-warm your sap. Some designs involve using the hot gases in the flu pipe,
or the steam coming off of your pans or even capturing heat right out of the firebox itself. I could devote an entire page to
pre-heaters and heat exchangers. Look for it sometime soon.
The bottom line is to always keep your sap boiling as aggressively as possible. If you stop seeing bubbles, try and tweak
the different parts of your evaporator to get it back to a full boil. Adjustments to the following things may improve your
boiling rate: type or dryness of fuel wood, how close your wood/flames are to the bottom of the pan, how much draft you
have, is your sap preheated before entering your pan?, Can you add grates under your wood to improve combustion?
Little changes like using a wire brush to clean the bottom of the pan(s) before you boil each time can make a big
difference in your rate of boil.
When boiling, you will notice a scummy layer that forms on top of your boiling sap. This is normal, but like a lid on a
saucepan, the scum will slow the rate of evaporation, so skim it off with a kitchen strainer periodically and discard. After
boiling for many hours your sap will become darker and taste much more like maple syrup. The best way for the home
sugarmaker to track the progress of the boiling sap’s journey to becoming maple syrup is by temperature. Sap becomes
maple syrup when it is 7 degrees fahrenheit above boiling. However, because you want to have maximum control of the
final step of boiling, finishing is best done in the kitchen on your range. When your sap reaches 5-6 degrees above the
boiling point of water, let your fire die down and shovel the remaining coals and wood out of your evaporator. Let the
bubbling in the pan stop before ladling or pouring the syrup into a large stock or canning pot for transport into the house.
If you do not remove the fire from under the pan before draining the syrup, you risk burning your entire day’s syrup batch
and scorching your sap pan, this should be avoided at all costs! You will save yourself a lot of time and frustration during
the filtering process if you run the 'almost syrup' through a paper lined felt filter at this point. Be very careful when handling
the precious liquid at this point. Not only is it the product of many hours of your free-time but it is also very hot and an
accidental spill on your body would result in a nasty burn.
8. Finish your syrup.
In maple syrup production, ‘Finishing’ is the term used to describe the final phase of boiling. In order to finish your syrup
you will need to know the temperature that water is boiling at today. Due to barometric pressure and elevation, water does
not always boil at 212° F, so fill a saucepan with water and bring it to a boil on your kitchen stove. Using the best (largest)
candy thermometer you can find, check the temperature of the boiling water. You will find that it will range from 210° to
213° F. Write this number down. By adding 7 degrees to the temperature of boiling water, you will get your target syrup
temperature. When measuring temperature, make sure that the thermometer bulb is not touching the sides or bottom of
the pan. With your ‘almost syrup’ in a large stock pot, fire up the range burner and bring it to a gentle boil, watch it closely.
When your syrup reaches 7 degrees above the boiling point of water, you will have made maple syrup! It takes hours for
your sap to raise just 1 degree outside during the early stages of boiling, however, at the finishing stage things move
much more quickly. You must watch the boiling syrup pot very closely as the temperature gets close to your target
temperature. As you get close to syrup, you will notice the bubble size will get smaller. It will become very sensitive to the
smallest temperature changes so watch carefully for signs that the syrup is about to boil over, such as a ‘rising’ bubble
level in the pot. You will need to have some vegetable oil and a small dropper ready to add a few drops of oil if the syrup
rises in the pot. The oil acts as a defoamer by breaking the surface tension on the bubbles and will help to drop the
bubble level down in your pot, but use it sparingly. Reducing the burner temperature as you get close to target temp will
also work, but it may not be fast enough if the pot is about to boil over. Once you reach your target temperature, remove it
from the heat and cover the pot. Uncovered, the syrup will continue to evaporate and you will go past your target
temperature. Even better than a thermometer, a tool called a syrup hydrometer and cup can be used to determine
when you have boiled enough. If you think you will make syrup again, this is a great investment.
9. Filtering You will notice some sediment suspended in the finished syrup. This is called ‘sugar-sand’ and should be
filtered out at the end of the process. If you filtered your syrup when you took it off the evaporator, you may be able to skip
the final filter. You can ladle the hot finished syrup through cheese cloth or coffee filters but if you make more than a
gallon or two, I would recommend investing in a felt cone filter and a pack of paper liners from a maple supply house. I
must admit, filtering is my least favorite part of the process because by the time you get to this step, you have been boiling
all day, are tired, and you want to go sit in the recliner! Syrup flows through filters much faster when it is hot but be careful,
transferring hot syrup around the kitchen during this process when you are fatigued can make for accidents and some
nasty burns. Keep the kids out of the way and stay alert. Another method is to let the syrup sit for 24 hours and much of
the larger sediment will settle to the bottom. Then you can just pour the good stuff off the top and filter the last few
quarts. Once you have a covered pot of filtered maple syrup, stick it in the refrigerator or unheated garage and go relax,
you have earned it! You can bottle it in canning jars tomorrow or in a few days.
|10. Bottling, labeling and consuming! Before bottling, I recommend that you test the boiling syrup
temperature (or with a hydrometer) one last time. During the hot filtering process, your maple syrup will continue to
evaporate. If you bottle your syrup too ‘sweet’ it will actually form sugar crystals in the bottom of the jar and, overall, you will
make less maple syrup. If you find that the syrup is 8 or 9 degrees over boiling just add a little sap (or hot water if you are
out of sap) to the pot and re-test until you are 7 degrees above boiling again. Remember to test the temperature of
boiling water again if you are bottling on a different day. Fill clean mason jars with your hot syrup almost to the top, add
freshly sterilized (by boiling) jar lids and rings and lay them on their side on a towel. Rotate the jars (as they lay on their
sides) a few times during the first 10 minutes of cooling to help sterilize the jar and air bubble. In a few hours, after the jars
have cooled, rinse any sticky fingerprints off the jars and dry. It is good practice to add a handwritten or computer
generated label to all jars. The label should include, the maple producer’s name, contact information, production date and
the words “Pure Maple Syrup”. You can store properly bottled maple syrup in a cool place out of the sunlight for years.
Syrup will store indefinitely in the freezer as it will not freeze.
Congratulations! You have just created a delicious, highly sought after agricultural product in your own backyard! Now you
know why a quart of maple syrup is more expensive than most bottles of wine!
|By Steve Mitman
Jan 30, 2012 (last update 3-2014)
Please link to this page
|You will need a large pan with high sides to hold your sap for boiling.
Large roasting pans (commercial kitchen size) are a good choice.
The bigger the better. Scrounge around, ask your friends, you might
get lucky and find an old sap pan in your uncle’s barn. You will need
to support your pan about 18-24” off the ground so that you can
build a fire under your sap filled pan. Rink Mann (and I) are big fans
of the cement block for constructing a cheap yet effective
evaporator. You may have some old blocks kicking around your
place, but even if you need to purchase them they are not
expensive (just heavy!). You will need to build 2 parallel walls out of
the blocks, each wall 2 courses high on level ground. Your pan will
sit on top creating a firebox below. Yankee ingenuity is essential
here. When I began with my cement block evaporator, I was always
looking for ways to improve my design. I still am with my current
home-made firebrick lined steel rig that can handle over 700 taps.
You can also setup an old wood stove outside (remove the burners
or top to improve heat transfer) or fabricate a stove/evaporator out
of 55 gallon drum. Check out the very informative forums on this site
and see what other creative sugarmakers have done:
Here are some clever home made rigs I found on youtube:
Thinking up and experimenting with different evaporator
configurations is probably my favorite part of making maple syrup. I
am always looking for a better way.
You will need to Collect plenty of dry sticks and limbs to stoke your
fire. You want a hot fast-burning fire, so dry softwood and slabs are
great for this purpose.
If you have enough syrup,
2-4 gallons, finishing can
also be done on a propane
burner like those sold for
turkey frying. This will give
you more control over the
rate of boil than a wood fire.
Remember to watch for
rising bubbles, which are a
sure sign that your batch is
about to boil over.
I made this cone filter stand
out of an old 5 gallon bucket.
Polyester pre-filters are
supported by the stronger felt
cone which is clamped to the
bucket rim. The pre-filter
catches the bigger stuff and
saves the heavier filter from
plugging up as quickly.
© 2013 Maine Sugarworks LLC
The correct angle to drill the hole!
Here I am over 20 years ago with my first evaporator.
The most basic evaporator design does not require a
smokestack but it really helps increase the air flow
into the firebox (this is called draft) this allows for a
much hotter fire. To support the stack, I cut the
center out of an old metal hubcap and slipped the
stove pipe inside. As a matter of principal, I try to
scrounge or barter the materials I use in my maple
operation however, this stovepipe looks brand new!
The wrong angle to drill your tap hole
Making maple syrup can be very rewarding for many different reasons.
Why? It is a delicious hobby that gives you and your children a good
reason to be outside in the snow and mud of early spring; allows you
to use your creativity when constructing the evaporator and collecting
equipment; it makes you a small scale farmer; it is a fun and relatively
safe way for kids to learn about fire; and the yummy final product is
highly desirable at the table and for gifts and barter. Unfortunately you
can literally spend a small fortune purchasing maple syrup production
tools and equipment. The focus of this page is to show you how to
make delicious maple syrup at home on a shoestring budget.
Here are 10 steps to make yummy maple syrup at home.
|How To Make Maple Syrup at Home, 10 Steps To Success
We built a sled that fits our snowmobile to collect
our sap. Some years we can use the snowmobile
for the entire season and others we are forced to
use a 4wheeler and trailer when the snow melts.
Boiling sap requires lots of dry firewood. If you are
just starting and you do not have a good source of
dry wood check out your local saw mills, the slabs
they cut off the logs to make them square can be
great to feed an evaporator but again, they must be
dry. Standing deadwood with peeling bark in the
forest is you best bet if you have to scrounge wood
in the winter.
You will need to make sure your firewood can
get enough air to fully combust. Scrounging
some cast iron grates from an old wood stove
to put under your wood will help greatly.
A sap pan at a rolling boil is a thing of
beauty. Smaller bubbles indicate that you
are getting closer to 7 degrees above
boiling and pure maple syrup, mmmmm.
|Got photos of your maple operation? I'd love to include some on
this page. Drop me a note if you have a comment at:
If you know a contractor, drywall compound 5 gallon buckets and lids can be easy to collect to use in your operation however.... they
are NOT ideal because they are not 'food grade'. I used them for years but I washed them very well and then let them air for a few
months in a sunny place on their side so they would not collect water. They must pass the sniff test and not smell of any off-odor.
When washing plastic avoid scratching the surface (with a 3-m pad or brillo pad) as bacteria can live in the rough scratched surface.
I linked to some relatively inexpensive food grade 5 gallon buckets on Amazon below.
Wade in Michigan
cold box to store
his sap. Sap kept
this cold, will last
for days until you
are ready to boil.