We have been tapping Sugar Maple Trees at The University of Cincinnati Clermont College since 1974. We have a long standing tradition of serving it up to the College Community at an Annual Waffle Breakfast. Here is an introduction to the subject with pictures of the initial steps of tapping the tree (below). Tapping should be done done in mid to late winter (Nights in the 20s and days sunny and in the 40s (Fahrenheit)
The production of maple syrup has been an activity of early spring since the pre-columbian era in America. American natives would gash the trees, collect the sap, let it partially freeze to enrich the sap and then boil it down, sometimes by dropping heated stones into the sap. Clermont County has a long history of making maple syrup, and it is reported that Ohio is second only to Vermont in production of maple syrup. The Ohio State University has put together a North American Maple Syrup Producers Manual which include information about the composition of maple syrup .
What Kind of Trees?
The trees suitable for tapping include all of the maple family: sugar, silver and red maples as well as box elder. Sugar maple sap contains the highest concentration of sugar (2% or higher according to weather conditions and the health of the tree). Box Elder produces a weaker sap, but one which is especially delicious to drink as is, tasting like a slightly sweet spring water. Other species of trees which reportedly may be tapped including walnut, hickories, sycamore and sweet birch. Trees to be tapped should be at least 1 1/2 feet in diameter, have large healthy crowns, and be well exposed to the sun.
Equipment necessary includes spiles, buckets, brace and bit, 5 gallon collection bucket, a large clean plastic garbage can for a reservoir, and an evaporator. Spiles, the tubes driven into the drilled hole, may be ordered through supply houses, or fabricated at home. 3/8″ aluminum tubing (PVC or copper may do, but be aware that copper is toxic to plants) may be cut into lengths of 2 1/2″, flared at one end to hang the bucket, and tapped with a hammer into a 1/4″ hole. (Be certain to remove the spile at the end of the sugaring season since copper is poisonous to the tree if left in.)
Tapping the Tree
The flow of sap is highly dependent upon weather conditions. Flow does not begin until after a time of hard freeze, followed by several sunny days with temperatures in the 40s. The peak flow occurs early in the sugaring season when it freezes at night and is bright and sunny the next day with the temperature in the 40s. The flow will stop when daytime temperatures do not go above freezing, or when night temperatures do not go below freezing. The flow usually lasts roughly three to four weeks. While it flows, collect daily the sap, preferably late afternoon. If the trees are tapped too soon and flow does not begin, it is possible that the holes will seal over and subsequent flow is inhabited significantly. The holes may have to be re-drilled in this case.
The Tapping Process, Illustrated
Collected sap may be held in a large reservoir if the temperatures do not go above 40 or 45 F. Warmer than that, the sap will support bacterial growth and spoil.
The evaporator may be any large shallow metal pan which may be heated. The larger the surface area of the boiling sap, the more rapidly it will evaporate. Boiling it down requires a great deal of energy. A LARGE baking pan on top of the stove will suffice. The best flavored syrup is produced over a wood fire, due to the slightly smoky flavor imparted on the syrup. A special wood-fired “Fankhauser” model evaporator may be fashioned in your back yard from an inverted clean garbage can lid and a 5 gallon can with bottom removed (rusted-out, for instance). Cut a 4″ x 4″ hole near the top of the can for smoke release.
Stand two large firebricks up to form the fire box and place the prepared five gallon can on top, with smoke hole up and away from where fire is to be stoked. Place the garbage can lid upside down on top and stabilize. Partially fill with sap, level lid by moving on can. Fill with sap to within 1/4 of top, stoke up a good fire. The lid will hold around 2 1/2 gallons of sap which should be removed to a saucepan to finish off. During the last few minutes, watch it like a hawk, as it will burn very easily at the last moment, ruining hours of boiling (and your mood). The finished syrup should have a specific gravity of 1.37, and boil at 104°C (219°F). If you want maple sugar, heat until it boils at 112°C (234°F).
The resulting syrup should surpass your expectations. It is very rich, and will go a long way. Try it on cornmeal waffles with butter. It is the real thing.