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How Does Maple Tree Sap Become Maple Syrup?

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When the temperature changes between the winter freezing and spring warming, it’s truly a magical time. When the snow begins to melt and the days are warm but the nights are still cold, the tree sap begins to flow with the promise of maple syrup.

The process of transforming maple tree sap into maple syrup is labor-intensive, mixed with science and patience. Although trees other than maples can be tapped, it is the maple that has the best flowing sap. First, you need to choose which trees to tap. Once you have chosen them, you will need certain tools and equipment to tap the trees and gather sap. Then you will need a system and area for processing the sap. Depending on how much you collect, you might be able to process it in your kitchen. Transforming tree sap into maple syrup is really fun and just about anyone can do it. Here are some pointers to get you started.

Choose the Best Tree

Any maple tree will work, but sugar maples have the highest sugar content. You can distinguish maples by their branch structure and their leaves (picture a Canadian flag with its maple leaf). Mark them before their leaves fall, in preparation for maple syrup making. Sugar maple leaves turn a vivid red in the autumn. Otherwise, looking at fallen leaves on the ground can help.

Ideally, trees with a diameter of 12 to 18 inches will be best. A good indication of a good producer of tree sap is if several sap-sucking birds have tapped it. A tree with a large crown, primarily in the sun, will work best. Being overshadowed by other trees can decrease the flow and might impact the flavor of the syrup, especially if the surrounding trees are not maples.

Tap the Tree

You will need a tap, called a spile, to insert into the tree. A 7/16 inch diameter spile, metal or plastic, is perfect. A hand-held drill, whether it’s battery-operated or manual, does not matter. However, make sure the drill bit is the same diameter as the spile, and mark the bit with tape at 2½ to 3 inches, which is the adequate depth to drill for tapping.

If the tree has been tapped in the past, find a new spot on the tree. Drill the tap hole so it’s angled for sap to drip slightly downward. You will likely begin to see the tree sap bubbling at the hole if the sap is running well. Use a hammer to knock in the spile. Check in a day or two that the spile remains firmly in place and that no sap leaks out of the hole around the spile. If it’s leaking, hammer the spile in more firmly.

Collecting the Tree Sap

If your spile has a spout and hook, you can use a bucket or a sap collecting bag. If the spile is tubular, you will also need food-grade tubing. A five-gallon bucket or even a coffee can or milk jug can work for collection. Make sure the bucket hangs securely from the hook or that it can sit on a flat spot, without tipping once it fills with sap. Tubing is not necessary but makes collection easier, and later on, the processing is easier than a tap with a spout dripping directly into a bucket. Make sure the tubing is long enough to reach into the collection bucket.

Tree sap is clear in color and almost entirely water, but there is a little bit of sugar in it, which is how maple syrup can be sweet. Drinking the maple tree sap tastes primarily like water, but there is a subtle sweetness to it. The tree sap starts at about 2 percent sugar and 98 percent water.

Cooking the Tree Sap

It takes a lot of tree sap to produce maple syrup. It can take 40 to 50 gallons of tree sap to produce one gallon of syrup. This reduction ratio explains why a small bottle of pure maple syrup can cost so much in the store. Once the sap is collected, it can wait a couple of days before needing to be frozen or starting the cooking process, otherwise, natural yeasts will begin to ferment the sap.

When it begins to evaporate, the sugars will start to caramelize, and that’s when the characteristic golden maple syrup color develops.

A wood or kitchen stove indoors or other camping stove equivalents outdoors works to evaporate small amounts of tree sap at a time. After cooking the sap for a little while, the color begins to darken, and the sweet maple aroma becomes apparent. The steam is water vapor evaporating. About every 15 minutes to an hour, the foam needs to be skimmed off the top of what is boiling, as it can cause an unpleasant flavor.

Finishing and Canning Your Syrup

Keeping sugars and proteins present in the sap concentration is important. Achieving the goal of 66.5 percent sugar content means quite a lot of water needs to boil away. Once it gets to about 50 percent sugar concentration, it’s easier to transfer to a smaller pot to have more control over the final reductions.

Use a sieve strainer with unbleached cotton fabric and a sap paper filter. Pour syrup slowly through to filter out any impurities. Then, finish cooking the syrup. Using a refractometer will help gauge the sugar content percentage. The bubbles will be quite fine when it’s ready. Decant syrup into clean, sterilized glass containers and store in a cold, dark spot, such as the refrigerator. Syrup can also be frozen.

Hopefully, this gives you an idea of how to start enjoying your maple trees even more. If you begin to notice the sap is discolored, that pests are present around the tree or the bark changes shape or texture around the hole you drilled to collect the maple sap, you might benefit from contacting a tree care professional. At Vernon Imel Tree Service, we are here to help with all your tree problems. Contact us to speak with a certified arborist today about your tree situation.