Tapping Trees for Liquid Gold

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BhAlfLxIUAAxVXaThe amount of time and energy required to produce one litre of syrup is enough to make the most ambitious and well intentioned people take a pass on such a project. I have learned that to be a maple syrup producer, you need to be like a stubborn mule. Yes, a stubborn mule.

I don’t say this in any negative terms…  if you are reading this, chances are you have read our other posts and realize that we hold animals in a very high regard around here. I only use this term because to make maple syrup, you are going to have to do a lot of hard work, put in a lot of hours for that little bit of “carrot” reward. The ratio of sap to syrup is 40 to 1, so like a mule, expect to put in a long day. Just know that your carrot, yes YOUR carrot will be the sweetest thing that you have ever eaten.

I can’t recall why I have such a deep desire to make maple syrup. My Dad once told me a story about how we tried it when I was just a kid,  and hardly got anything. I honestly don’t remember doing this, but something, somewhere planted a seed deep within my soul. I love trees, the outdoors and the freshness of the air, as the long winter begins to wake and stretch its roots into spring.

If you are going to do this, don’t let anyone convince you that you need to go spend hundreds, or thousands of dollars on “proper” equipment. At our old place I tapped a few trees. It was a primitive experiment, using copper pipes inside of proper spiles for taps, and I nailed my sometimes lidless buckets to the trees. It worked. I then boiled on the propane bbq side burner to make the most expensive syrup ever produced. It was fun, and we thoroughly enjoyed the fresh taste of the changing seasons.

Chances are, you already have something around the house to tap trees with. Have a look around before heading out to the store to buy new. I always cut my pipe in 3 inch lengths. Be careful,though, if using copper as it is toxic to trees and MUST be removed as soon as the trees show the first signs of buds.

Grocery stores are also a great source for buckets and lids. They just throw them out, so if in need, stop by their bakery department and tell them how many you will need. Chances are they will stockpile them for you. Keep in mind that if you decide you want more for next year, you should reward them with a little taste of your labour.

Be sure that the tree you are tapping is a maple, a good way to be sure is to mark some off  with flagging tape while they have leaves. Your season doesn’t last long. Close to the end of February I begin. I drill my hole for the spile 2.5 inches deep and about three feet up, trying to get the most south-facing area I can, and hopefully directly under branch. The trees I tap are Norway Maples which have branches that start very low on the tree.  I then gently tap it into the tree with a hammer, ensuring that there is no sawdust in the taps, hang the bucket, and wait. Be careful while drilling. You want to ensure that you are drilling into nice light colored wood. If the wood appears dark, stop drilling and find a new place to put your tap. The sap will flow until early April, or when the trees begin to bud.

Proper  taps, buckets and lids

This year, I opted to invest in my future fun, and purchased 50 proper taps, some new buckets and lids. It took some shopping around, but I managed to find the best deals. Beware, some places will bring in supplies and triple the initial cost. Three or four dollars for a tap is too much.

When we were scouting for a bigger place to call home, we very nearly purchased my maple paradise. The property had a huge maple grove, with sugar shack and everything else we would need to be in the maple syrup business. However, the universe had other plans for us and we could not buy that property. It did ignite a fire within me and set my brain in motion with a grand plan for this place we are in now.

Currently, it has many old growth maple trees on the property that are well over 50 inches in diameter. These, combined with a few of our neighbour’s trees are doing me just fine so far.  For the long term plan,  I have begun transplanting saplings to an area where I plan to build my sugar shack. In 10 to 15 years I should have a nice little hideaway.

When we moved in to our homestead we discovered that we had to make some home heating decisions and would not be using the  1968 oil furnace in the basement at all, which  provided a perfect oil tank to convert into a large wood burning appliance.

The only tools I needed for this were my trusty Princess Auto welder and my angle grinder.  Canadian Tire must have been informed that I was doing this project because the week I set out to do it they had welding wire and cut off discs on sale for 70% off.

10" diameter tree needed to tap. Larger trees can handle more taps.
10″ diameter tree needed to tap. Larger trees can handle more taps.

This was the first creative thing that I had ever done with metal, and I have no training or  experience doing anything of the sort. I am thankful for the internet for guidance. I looked at enough pictures of sap boilers to get an idea in my head of how I wanted mine to look. I also wanted to teach myself to weld, and thought that this would be a great practice project.

Needless to say, it went together much better than expected. Minus the cost of wire, cutting discs and hinges, oh, and the high heat paint (that melted off) the entire unit was built with recycled items found right here. Total cost to construct $36.41.

The fire pit was ready, now I needed my evaporation pans for the top. The internet has many great photos and ideas, as well as ready made units available for sale. I priced out stainless steel and the cost for someone to make me pans. The price was reasonable, but not in this year’s budget.  A reasonable solution was found. Hotel serving trays. I could get three on the top of my boiler and boil about 40 liters at a time. Not highly efficient,  but I was still cooking. Then, it came. A call from the maple gods. I was told that I could have the ultimate stainless tub. With some modification of the tub and my heater I feel that I have a nearly perfect, old fashioned sap evaporator. Thank you very much maple gods!

Boiler with large stainless boiling pan

Old fashioned evaporator?  Yes old fashioned. I think like everything else that has ever been sacred and pure, the maple syrup industry has gone too far main stream. I recently heard of a new method that will allow young trees to be tapped by cutting off their tops and attaching a vacuum to suck out huge amounts of sap. That is not what I want  folks sitting down to a plate of waffles covered in Tipsy Toad syrup to think about while enjoying the sweetness of the liquid sugar.

With each bite I want you to thing of us snowshoeing through the woods, buckets in hand, carefully pouring the sweet water from trees while thanking mother nature for taking care of us. Think about the enjoyment we have being outside taking in the different odors as the water goes through the different stages of conversion, or our childish giggles as we filter a finished batch from boiler to bottle.

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To me, making maple syrup is symbolic of a simpler time, a slower time. For a couple of months a year I am going to really enjoy life at this speed. For years I have fantasized about building a time machine and going back to live in a simpler time. I think I have succeeded with that dream. My time machine will never hit 88 miles per hour, or need 1.21 gigawatts of power, but that is very okay with me. Who needs all that fancy stuff anyway? Our pioneer forefathers took the methods taught to them by the Natives and used what they had on hand to make their own way. Slow and steady is how I want to get back to the future. Come take a ride with us.

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