How to eat A Sugar maple

Raw maple sap itself is impressive. It's an organically purified source of freshwater, ready to drink from the tree. At 98% water and 2% sugar; it has 15 calories and 3 grams of sugar in an 8 oz serving as well a mix of minerals including manganese, important for calcium absorption and blood sugar regulation. Maple water products in the marketplace are pasteurized or otherwise processed to ensure shelf life. 

 

Maple sap is most often processed into syrup. This pantry staple can be become an organic, local and sustainable alternative to imported cane sugar. Use it to lather the usual breakfast suspects and flavor baked treats, but also as a sweetener for braised meat and beans, wild rice porridge and cooked greens. Sweeten tea and cocktails. 

 

Further processing can create maple butter or cream spread, fudge and sugar. 

 

The last bit of a season’s sap run, lower in sugar content, can be fermented into alcohol and converted to a maple vinegar, a sweet and sour primer for salad greens and meat marinades. 

Mid March - Mid April

Peak  Season

 

The RecipeS:

The RecipeS:

FIELD NOTES

 

An Introduction to Harvesting Maple Sap

You might be new to maple harvesting. We've got the important questions covered.

 

what do maple trees even do?

HOW TO BE THE SUGAR MAPLE TREE

Tree stars.

That’s right. Sugar maple leaves actually aren’t far off from the fictional delicacy. 

 

In the green leaves of a deciduous tree’s canopy, sunlight and carbon dioxide is converted into sugars and carbohydrates. This is the food energy for plants and the fungi that live below them. A byproduct of this process, photosynthesis, is oxygen. It’s of no real use to the trees, but hey, breathing is nice, for the rest of us animals. Most oxygen is produced in the oceans but let’s give the trees their due. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Below the ground, the trees’ root systems grow out and down as deep and as wide it does above. At the narrower, more recent growth of a trees’ roots, are hairs that search for water and collect it from sources in the soil, in the warmer months when it is unfrozen. Also down here, arrives the food energy from the canopy, and it is in great demand by other organisms. Many trees will soften their roots and allow mycelium, an expansive mat of very fine threads of fungus, to attach and trade their more efficient harvest of minerals for those sugars. Without these minerals, trees would only be several feet tall. It’s a pretty necessary deal, and the mycelium can take up to a third of the tree’s sugar production in this partnership. The mycelium may use it for it’s own well-being, or trade with other trees, even other species of trees in the same area of forest.

Ground water taken in through the trees’ roots absorbs these sugars, carbohydrates and minerals, becoming the nutrient rich sap a tree needs to grow, heal and reproduce. This sap in a sugar maple looks and acts just like water. It might have a faint golden hue, thanks to the concentration of sugar, at around 2%. This prized substance moves around inside the tree by several mechanisms, including transpiration via the leaves, osmosis between neighboring cells, and most important to us, by capillary action in the long continuous hollow tubes that run the length of the trunk. 

 

When the leaves fall in autumn, a tree stores this sugary sap in it’s roots. It wants energy at the ready for next growing season, when the warmth and sunshine of spring return. Snow remains on the forest floor, but when a consistent series of temperature swings from below 32° freezing at night to around 40°F during the day occurs, the sap flow occurs.

 

During the cold night, the pressure inside the tree may become negative in relation to surrounding atmospheric pressure. As it freezes, the trees begin to suction sap up from their roots to the crown. During the warmth of the day, pressure inside the tree pushes sap back down the central core of the tree. At this time, a maple harvester drills into the trunk and taps in a spile, or spigot. The reservoir drilled behind the spile fills with sap and drains off into collection containers. 

can anyone do this?

There are no licenses or certifications required to harvest the sap of sugar maple trees.

what do i need?

when should i go?

WHEN TO TIME THE TAPPING

The general season sap begins to flow is between late-February and late-March. When daytime temperatures rise towards 40°  and nighttime temperatures fall below freezing, you’ll want to be ready to go. The rising temperature raises pressure in the trees, generating a flow of sap that lasts four to six weeks. The earliest run of sap has the highest sugar content. The later period of a run is lower, but can still be boiled down or used to make vinegar. Once temperatures remain above the freezing and the buds of new growth begin to appear, the sap run is over. 

where do they grow? where can i tap?

WHERE TO FIND YOUR SUGARBUSH

Sugar maples are a common tree in the forested parts of Minnesota. They can be found in most counties, the exception being the western plains counties. 

 

Because the sap run happens fast and you need to check your containers regularly, most tree tapping operations occur near a persons’ residence. You might find sugar maples in the yards of your neighborhood. Consider asking a neighbor for permission to tap their trees. 

 

Many city parks and state parks host maple syrup programming. They don’t usually allow individuals to tap trees, as they need to reserve their resources for public programs but it never hurts to ask for recommendations. 

 

There is a lot of other public land in Minnesota with sugar maple growth. State forests, wildlife management areas and national forests, they might allow you to tap. There is no definitive restrictions or regulations on tapping trees on these lands. You will want to contact a particular land unit and it’s manager for permission to tap there. 

ok, i'm going to the woods. what am i looking for?

HOW TO IDENTIFY MAPLE TREES

There are four species of maple tree in Minnesota, any of which can be tapped. These include; the boxelder (Manitoba maple), the silver/white (soft or cutler maple), the red (soft maple) and your primary target; the sugar maple (hard maple). This sap has the highest sugar content at 2%.

 

Sugar maples have distinct characteristics.

When growing in their preferred habitat, rich and moist soils, they will reach heights of 60 to 100 feet. In dense growths, they develop limb free trunks. Growing in the open, their crowns will grow dense and round. 

 

The bark is brown and furrowed. The vertical grooves are closely spaced and look shaggy from a distance. Younger trees are grayish brown. As they mature, they darken, and plates of bark lift, shedding from the top down. Years of leaking sap run darkens and blackens maple tree trunks. 

The leaves, shaped like the silhouette proudly displayed on the Canadian flag, are dark green on the outside and lighter green underneath. They are generally round with five lobes with sharp teeth, connected by shallow U-shaped notches. Stems are the same length or shorter than the leaf lobes. 

A key characteristic; maples exhibit opposite branching. Leaves and branches grow directly across from one another, as opposed to alternate branching. Focus your attention on some of the new growth at the end of branches and look for those opposite branch splits. 

The seeds have wings and grow in pairs the shape of a horseshoe. Science calls them samaras, or keys. As kids, we would pick them up from the ground, throw them into the air and watch them flutter a spinning descent to the ground. We called them helicopters.

i found maples! which ones should i tap?

HOW TO TAP MAPLE TREES

Look for trees at least 10" inches in diameter at chest height. 

 

Pick healthy looking ones, without open wounds or stunted growth. Dark coloration on tree trunks indicate heavy sap flow that has oozed out in past runs. Trees with more limbs will produce more sap. 

where should i tap the tree?

The tree trunk is responsible for transporting water and nutrients from the roots to the crown. The tap is a hole drilled through the outer layer of bark into the sapwood, where the nutrient rich water is piped upwards. A spigot, called a spile, is tapped into the hole. Sap pools in the drilled reservoir and is drained into a collection container. 

 

Your tap should be at a height of 3 or 4 feet off the ground, wherever the heft of a filled container will be easier to handle. The ideal tap hole will be placed above a large root or below a large branch, on the sunny south facing side of the tree. 

can i tap it more than once?

Best practice is to place only one tap per tree.

 

If a tree is greater than 20” diameter in you can place two taps. Three taps can go in a 25" diameter tree but consider this the limit. 

If tapping more than once, distribute evenly around the circumference of the tree. Avoid tapping within several inches of former holes that haven't had at least five years to heal. 

alright, how do I tap this tree?

You will need:

  • a drill with a 5/16" or 7/16"" bit

  • your collection of spiles (spigots)

  • your buckets or collection containers

                A Basic Method for tapping a maple tree;

 

1. Drill a hole, at a slight upward angle, around 2.5" or 3" inches deep. If light brown drill shavings are produced you have a healthy spot of sapwood. If dark brown, try another spot.

2.  Insert the spile into the tap hole. If conditions are favorable for a run, sap will immediately appear. 

 

3. Gently tap the spile into the tree, taking care not to force the wood to split. 

4.  Hang the collection container on the spile hook. Wait for the container to gather raw sap. 

does it have to be a bucket?

There are a variety of food grade containers the independent gatherer can use. Comparative advantages to consider include price, ease of use and off season storage. 

Buckets: Plastic or stainless steel buckets in 2 or 3 gallon volumes are combined with broad lid covers and cost around $7 per tap. Particular cast aluminum spiles have hooks and eyes to accommodate these set ups. Easy hanging, high collection volume and the ability to save storage space by stacking make these attractive options. 

Bags: Galvanized steel sap bag holders are around $3 each. These hold plastic bags that can collect up to 4 gallons of sap. Bags are inexpensive and can be rinsed and reused unless they've held spoiled sap. They take an extra minute to set up, but hang securely on a spile, pour well and take up the least space in storage. 

Juice Jugs: A budget friendly option are recycled 1 gallon clear plastic juice jugs. Hawaiian Punch brand containers have a small handle that hangs well on the fins of aluminum spiles. We attach a small length of rubber hose to the end of the spile, directing the sap flow into the buckets. These are fairly easy to clean but take up space when storing. 

how long will it take to fill this bucket?

WHEN TO CHECK YOUR TAPS

Sap flows on days that warm rapidly early in the first half, after a night where temps were below freezing (32°F).  These conditions aren’t consistent, and your buckets will only fill accordingly. If you do get that few hours of flow, you can expect to collect from one quart to one gallon of sap per day. It’s best to have an opportunity to check your buckets at least once each day to reduce spillage. You’ll need to collect it within two days and process it or store it in a cold place to prevent spoilage or off tasting syrup.

how many trees should i tap? how much sap do i need?

On average you will receive ten gallons of sap per tree each season.

Sap is processed into syrup at a 40:1 ratio. 40 gallons of sap are needed to produce 1 gallon of maple syrup. A gallon is a good goal if you're interested in using maple syrup as a native, wild sugar substitute for all of your cooking, baking and canning for the year. If it's just for breakfast cakes, 10 gallons of sap can be boiled into 1 quart of syrup, a few standard consumer size bottles.

40 gallons sap                                    

1 gallon syrup                                  

HOW TO HANDLE YOUR MAPLE SAP

how should i collect and transport this?

Bring a voluminous food grade container into the sugar bush during collection. 6 or 7 gallon plastic water jugs and a funnel allow you to easily empty and consolidate the raw sap thats gathered in your collection containers. 

 

 Cold temperatures overnight will freeze water into ice. If there are chunks of ice in your container, this is mostly water and you can discard it. Sap left behind has higher sugar content. This will decrease your evaporating time. If your raw sap volume is limited, save it, there is some sugar content it you can take advantage of. If it's cold enough overnight to freeze the entire container wait until later in the day for it to thaw before collecting and processing.  

how long can i store this sap?

Sap is perishable. It is best to boil it down as soon as possible. Until then, it will spoil and produce a poor tasting product if not kept cold. Sap gathered into larger jugs can be kept in the shade, packed with snow or otherwise stored at a temperature of 38° or colder to be processed within 7 days of collection.

when is it time to stop tapping?

When night time temperatures remain above 32° the season will come to an end. Signals of this approach include "bud break", when surrounding twig tips begin to blossom. Moths awaken with the warmth and appear in your collection containers. As your sap loses it sweetness and takes on a milky cloudiness, it's a wrap. 

how do i close a maple tree tap?

alright, how do i make this into food?

When the sap run concludes, remove your tap spiles with your pry tool and leave the tree to heal over the tap wound on its own. The tree will be fine to tap next season, just not in this same spot. Your next tap should be at least three inches to the side. 

HOW TO BOIL MAPLE SAP INTO SYRUP

what is the sediment forming at the bottom of the jar?

The overall method of processing sap is to concentrate the sugar by removing the water, usually by applying heat and boiling it. You can also place it in a freezer, and remove the frozen block of water that forms, leaving behind a sap concentrate with higher sugar content, then boiling this. Applied heat also develops the desirable color and flavor of maple syrup. 

When boiling, a greater surface area is more important than depth, so consider boiling and evaporating in a pan, something stainless steel at least 2' feet by 2' feet and 6" to 7" inches in depth. 

             

 

1. Bring the heat. Do this outdoors. Evaporation produces large amounts of steam that can damage interior spaces. There are several set ups that work well. Sap can be boiled in a stock pan over a propane fryer. Usually, an evaporating pan can be placed on an outdoor double burner grill or on top of a wood burning stove, You can also dig a shallow trench and line the walls with bricks or stones. Span the pit with metal bars to provide a support for your pot or pan. Apply heat by building a fire with dried, split wood.

2. Boil your sap. Fill your pan 3/4 full of sap and place it on your heat source. If and when the sap foams, remove it with a fine strainer.  It can take three to five hours to boil 10 gallons of raw sap down to 1 gallon of sugary concentrate. When it's been boiled down to a 1/4 or 1/5 of the original depth and has taken on a golden color, pour it through a fine strainer into a smaller stock pot, to be brought indoors.  

 

3. Finish up indoors.  The boiling point for finished sap is 7° F above the boiling point of water (212°F). The strained stock pot of concentrated sap is placed on a stove top range, where you can more carefully control the temperature and avoid burning. Inside, continue boiling. Keep a candy thermometer in the boil and watch for the temperature to reach 219°. As this point approaches, dip a spoon and watch for aproning; when the sticky substance slides off and folds over on itself. The syrup will begin to bubble aggressively when it's time to remove from heat. 

4.  Final product! Pour the still hot syrup through a food grade filter, like a fine strainer or a cheese cloth, into another clean container, like a glass pitcher to remove mineral particulate and any remaining debris. If the syrup cools, it will be too viscous to run through the filter.

 

Funnel your still hot final product into glass bottles or canning jars, leaving little headspace. 

 

For long term storage, sterilize your glass bottles or jars by submerging them in a boiling hot water bath for ten minutes before packing them. After filling with hot, filtered, freshly finished syrup, cap the bottles or jars. You do not need to boil them again to seal, like you would with other canning projects. You should listen for the popping of the lids to confirm you have a proper seal.

how do i package this?

how long will maple syrup keep for?

HOW TO PRESERVE YOUR MAPLE SYRUP

After it cools, your capped bottles or jars should be stored in a cool, dry place. Unopened, they will keep for several years at least. Plastic containers will keep up to 2 years. 

 

An opened container should live in the refrigerator and will keep it’s original quality for several months. If a thin layer of mold develops, remove it with a spoon. This is forming in a thin layer of water on top of the syrup and hasn’t contaminated the rest of the product. You can re-sterilize by bringing it to a brief boil above 190F, but this isn’t crucial. 

Sugar sand, maple sand or niter - are minerals deposits in the sap that settle in the bottom of the jar. It will appear if your finished syrup wasn’t filtered finely enough. The sand is entirely safe for human consumption. It’s gritty, but still sweet.

 

To many, it is unattractive in the jar and it is possible to create a cleaner finished syrup by filtering. At the end of the finishing stove top boil, while the syrup is still hot, pour through a reusable cloth cone filter in a cone filter stand. You can try getting by with cheesecloth or coffee filters but the best result comes with use of a cloth filter, made from polyester or Orlon. These are resistant to hot temperatures and are reusable when rinsed under hot water. 

HOW TO FILTER OUT SUGAR SAND

and until next year?

HOW TO CLEAN AND STORE YOUR GEAR

Prior to storing your equipment, scrub it clean with a one part bleach to 20 parts water, triple rinse with hot water and dry. 

1/1
 

SPILES

These are the spouts through which your maple sap will flow. There are several styles, depending on the collection containers you'll use. Use the first recommendation for buckets and the second for bags or jugs.

COLLECTION CONTAINERS

These sap collection vessels should be made of a food-grade material, plastic or metal. Buckets, bags or plastic jugs. 

DRILL & BIT

Match the size of your drill bit to the type of spile you’re using. Most are a 7/16” or 5/16” bit. 

TAPPING TOOL

A box hatchet has all the necessary functions; hatchet for cleaning bark, hammer for tapping and a pry bar to remove taps. 

COLLECTION STORAGE CONTAINERS

Each tap could produce 1-2 gallons every collection. Several of these 7 gallon water jugs make for easy collection, transportation and cold storage.

SLED

If you’re carrying gallons of maple sap, you’re doing too much. Do less. 

BURNER

Outdoor wood stoves, fire pits and gas grills are all workable options but this single burner propane stove is a simple and clean option for the hobbyist gatherer..

EVAPORATING PAN

Surface area is more important than volume. Depth of six to eight inches is preferable. Use these pans if you don't have time to go thrift shopping. 

THERMOMETER

These are accurate to 1/4° and delineate when you're reaching syrup, candy and sugar temperatures.

FILTER

Synthetic polyester or orlon material filter cones make the trickiest part of processing very easy. Two pours will remove all of the sugar 

sand, leaving a clean final product. These can be quickly rinsed and 

reused for several years.

SYRUP BOTTLE

Score some packaging worthy of your fine product. Canning jars work fine.  

HEAD

A wool buff wrapped round the ears or a snug beanie should do the trick. 

GLOVE LINERS

Look for windproof fabrics that block the breeze and sticky, dextrous fingers for dependable set management.

MIDWEIGHT GLOVES

Strike a balance between lofty insulation and finger dexterity.

BASELAYER UPPER

Wear wool or synthetics next to skin. These fabrics transfer moisture, manage odor and continue to insulate after wet from a sweaty tree stand approach. 

INSULATING MIDLAYER

Your favorite flannel.

VEST / JACKET

Under some puffy insulation on the colder spring days. 

UNDERWEAR

Wear one pair all weekend with wicking, anti-microbial wool or synthetic performance briefs that feel fantastic.

BASELAYER BOTTOM

Lightweight/midweight, wool or synthetic thermal “long johns” will trap heat right against the skin and wick away any moisture during periods of overheating.

SHELL BOTTOMS

To protect your insulating layers from wind and precipitation, put on a hard shell bottoms made from durable, waterproof, breathable fabrics.

SOCK SYSTEM: ULTRALIGHT / LIGHT / HEAVY WEIGHT

Ultralight synthetic liner socks will transfer any moisture to a lightweight/midweight merino wool. Adhere a full foot length heat pad then layer on a heavyweight and expedition weight sock. 

INSULATED BOOTS

Spring in the woods is wet and requiring some insulation. Be sure to outfit footwear with a waterproof/breathable membrane and some insulation. 

Equipment

Apparel

GEAR GUIDE

COMPLETE A SUGAR HARVEST?

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