Making Maple Syrup in the Back Yard
The long winter is finally fading away and you have a mean case of cabin fever. The sunshine is tempting you to leave the hovel and become active after your months of hibernation. You want to feel productive again and need an outdoor activity to kick start your ambition to get outside and just DO something. If you are a do it yourself type of person, no matter how impractical or uneconomical your project may be, you could enjoy making your own maple syrup. I collect sap each spring and boil most of the water out of it over an open fire pit until it becomes syrup. It has become a tradition, but if the truth be told, it is more of a spring time celebration and an excuse to get outside to enjoy some campfire cooking and a few beverages.
Making maple syrup was a native American tradition. Legend has it that a chiefs wife boiled venison in the sap collected from a maple tree that he was using for tomahawk practice. They enjoyed the sweet flavor and soon the process of making syrup and sugar evolved. I've also heard stories that small rodents and birds were boiled in the sap then eaten. Boiling was likely done by placing hot rocks in a cauldron made from a hollowed log that was then filled with sap. I picture a group of Indians wrapped in blankets, standing around a steaming fire pit, when they get the munchies and decide to snack on a few chipmunks. I usually just roast some venison back strap over the fire and have a few beers or some wine. Not all that different from my mental picture of the ancient native American sap party I guess.
Sap can be collected from most maple trees, even from Birch or Box Elder trees. The Sugar Maple has the highest concentration of sugar in the sap. It can be identified predominantly by it’s leaves.
Sap needs to be collected in the spring when the daytime temperatures are above freezing but below 40F. and the nights are frosty. Cool sunny days and ice cold nights. It must be collected before the trees begin to bud. If done after, the sugar content of the sap will be greatly reduced. The sap may “run” for 4 – 6 weeks and here in Southern Michigan usually begins in early March.
To make 1 gallon of syrup will take about 40 gallons of sap. This comes from something called the rule of 86. It is an equation that was derived from the fact that finished syrup contains about 86% solids.
Gallons of sap per gallon of syrup = 86/[sap sugar concentration]
So if the sap contains 2% sugar you need 43 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup. Sap from a Sugar Maple is typically 2.5% concentration, so you would need about 34 gallons of sap.
You can purchase taps and other supplies from online stores like
or you can rig up your own from small diameter tubing or pipe.
I usually collect sap in old 2.5 gallon water jugs tied to the tree under the tap. I use a short piece of plastic tubing running from the tap into the jug. To place the tap in the tree, I drill about a ½ in diameter hole(depending on the tap size) about 1 inch deep into the sapwood below the bark of the tree. This will not permanently damage the tree. I only tap three trees with one tap each and get enough sap to make a little less than a gallon of syrup. That’s all I have time to make. The larger the tree, the more taps you can place.
On my cast iron fire pit I place some concrete block spacers and top them with an old refrigerator grate. The fire is built under the grate with small logs and branches or sticks from ¾” to 4” diameter. I have two larger pots on the grate, one over the center of the fire, the other off the side a bit. The center pot is for boiling, the side is for warming. I boil and boil and boil, continually filling the center boiling pot from the warming pot, until all the sap is gone. To boil down 40 gallons of sap could take 2 full days.
The sap will eventually turn brownish in color and become thicker. Once I have a thin, sweet syrup, I finish boiling on my stove in the house to thicken it. You do not want to boil all the sap in your house because it may form a sticky film on the walls and ceiling from steam. Once the syrup has cooled down I pour it through a cloth (a few times) placed in a strainer basket over a clean pot. This will remove chunks of soot, ash or chipmunk that invariably will end up in the sap from boiling over the fire.
The syrup will be dark and have a smoky flavor, which I like. If that is a taste you don’t think you’d enjoy, then let me introduce you to Aunt Jemima.