Oh, yes. It's that time again.
While the snow is still on the ground but the days have started to warm, the maple sap begins to rise.
And we tap.
Somehow every year it feels like hope becomes somthing tangible and real in the form of the steady drip-drip-drip of sap into bucket.
"Yes. Spring will come again," it says.
And every year it does.
This year we're just tapping a few trees close to our house. This summer we'll mark lots more maples in our woods and build a simple maple sap cooker. But for now we're going easy and slow.
In my life-before-motherhood-and-LuSa I was a naturalist. In that role I've tapped lots of maple trees with lots of school groups. It's easy, educational, and ridiculously rewarding. And so we've also done it as a family almost every year since before Sage was born.
If you haven't made maple syrup with your family I urge you give it a go! Even in town you can surely find a tree or two to tap on your own property or with a friendly neighbor. (In Viroqua we tapped a friends' tree with the agreement to share the syrup we produced.)
If you're new to maple tapping or just need a refresher, here is how to do it. Really it's as simple as: drill, tap, collect, and cook. But I've explained it in more detail below!
How to Tap a Maple Tree
1. Gather supplies
All you need is a spile (or tap), a hammer, drill with appropriate bit, and a bucket and lid. And a tree, of course. But we'll get to that in a moment.
In years past we modified random buckets by cutting a hole in the side and adding a loop of wire to suspend it from the spile. This year we bought proper maple pails, found locally and made by these folks in Canada.
Either option works. Ideally you will have a lid to keep out bits of bark and leaves, but this, too, can be improvised.
2. Find your tree
Sugar maples are best but in a pinch we've even tapped our birch trees, a Norway maple, and a silver maple. Sugar maple have the most sugar of all, but the others still make great syrup. (Surprising but true!)
You will, of course, need some basic skills in tree identification. If this isn't your forte ask a competent friend to help, visit a local nature center for assistance (bring in a branch from your tree if you wish), or get a simple tree ID book like this winter tree field guide from your library. Or use this fabulously simple on-line key in the summer and mark your tree for next year.
Maples are - in my opinion - one of the easiest deciduous trees to identify in any season because of their opposite branching, but if you're unsure get help!
To tap your trees, first pick the right time of year. Tap in late winter/early spring when the daytime temperatures are above freezing but the nights are still cold. This is when the sap begins to rise and is the only time to capture a bit for yourself. (Here in Western Wisconsin that's usually late February or early March.)
Tap by choosing a drill bit the same diameter or a smidge narrower than your spile near the widest part before the hook. (Usually 5/16" or 7/16".) Drill a hole at chest height on the south (sunny) side of the tree at a slight angle downward from the trunk. (Your bit will be angled upward just a touch.)
Drill to the depth required for your spile. You can mark that spot on your drill with a piece of masking tape if you wish.
Insert the spile into the hole and tap firmly into place with your hammer. On a good warm day the sap will begin to flow immediately with a few satisfying drips into your pail (or mouth).
Hang your bucked and place your lid.
Large trees can handle two (possibly three) taps, depending on size. More information on tree diameter for multiple taps can be found here.
4. Check your pails
Each day check your pails and empty any collected sap. I pour mine through a fine mesh towel to remove any bits that have found their way into the sap. If there is a puck of ice on the top of your pail you can remove and discard it. It is almost all water and you can reduce your cooking time by pulling it out.
5. Cook your sap
We normally cook as we go, keeping a pot of sap cooking away on the stove, on and off throughout mapling season.
If you are cooking outside or if you aren't collecting much sap, gather it in a large pail or pan until you have enough to cook down, being sure to keep your collected sap cold while you gather more. Cook your sap withing seven days to be sure it is still fresh.
Cook down your syrup on a fire outside or - for small amounts - on your kitchen stove.
It takes 50-plus quarts of sap to make a quart of syrup so that's a lot of boiling and evaporation!
Pour your sap into a large, preferably wide cooking pot. As the sap cooks down it begins to darken and become sweet. As this concentration occurs transfer your syrup to a smaller pan to prevent scorching.
When you see a darker color beginning to develop reduce your heat to a low simmer. Stir often at this stage and watch closely. When it looks (and tastes) like syrup you are done!
6. Remove your taps
In two to three weeks, when your nights are no longer cold it's time to pull the taps. (The sap develops and off flavor if you don't.) Carefully clean your equipment and store it away until next year.
Easy, simple, and sweet. What's not to love?