"Maple syrup, man, that's where it's at. You ever had real maple syrup, brah? That stuff is just the cat's pajamas." - Mahatma Gandhi
To elaborate on what I believe Gandhi was trying to say, real maple syrup is much better than the Aunt Jemima stuff we are all used to, which is actually corn syrup. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not a syrup snob, I grew up on the ol' Aunty J myself, and I loved it. But I am a hillbilly, so for some reason I have to make my own syrup.
Some quick background information. Syrup can be made from many different species of trees. There are no "ingredients" to real syrup, it is literally just boiled down sap (spoiler alert, this Instructable is going to be boring). Maple trees have the highest sugar content in their sap so they are the easiest to make syrup, sugar maples being the best. It takes roughly 40 gallons of sugar maple sap to make one gallon of syrup. Silver maple sap/syrup ratio is roughly 50:1, and black walnut is roughly 60:1. I only have silver maple trees in my yard, so that's what I'm working with. Sap is collected in the spring when daytime temps are above freezing, and temps get below freezing at night. This freeze thaw cycle is what drives the sap through the tree. Once the trees bud (bad taste) or temps are constantly above freezing (poor production) you are done collecting sap.
Step 1: Tapping the Trees
There are many different types of equipment for tapping trees, but the basic principle is that you are putting a spout in a tree and collecting the stuff that comes out. I got some taps (spiles) online and they have a short length of hose that can go directly into a bucket. Commercial operations just have a maple forest (sugar bush) full of hoses leading to the boiling place (sugar shack), no buckets to empty. Look at you learning all this top notch lingo, you're welcome.
I drilled holes in the sides of 3 gallon buckets to collect the sap, I first drilled the lids but then realized rain or other gunk is more likely to get in the top so I taped over these holes and drilled the sides. Then I drilled a hole into the tree 1.5" deep at a slight upward angle, which is 3.8 cm to anyone not using our ridiculous measurement system. Then I tapped the spile into the tree until it bottoms out in the hole and ran the hose into the side of a bucket.
Step 2: Collecting the Sap
Once you have all your spiles installed you are all set to collect sap. The amount of sap you get from trees varies based on quite a few variables that I haven't quite pinned down yet, but my best tree spit out about 3 gallons on it's best days. The one comment that everyone has is "Why is the sap clear? It doesn't look like syrup". To which I reply "That's because it's 98% water, gah, read a book". It is clear, it does look just like water, and you can drink it just like this and it tastes like a very lightly sweetened water.
I had originally planned to collect all my sap into two large barrels that I bought, that way I could do just one boiling session since that is time consuming. I later realized that since the sap has sugars it can grow bacteria, so it either needed to be boiled or frozen within a few days of collection. I chose to freeze the sap because I don't have the time to boil every week, I would prefer to do it all at once. I know what you're wondering, can my wife fit inside the barrel? Yes, she can.
Step 3: Making the Boiling Pan
To boil the sap into syrup you will need to make some sort of cooking station. This can be as simple as a big pot on a propane turkey fryer if you don't have much. You will want to do the cooking outside because you will be boiling off gallons of water, which could spell bad news for the inside of your house. The more surface area you have in your boiling pan the faster it will evaporate the excess water, so I chose to make a fairly large pan. My friend Mikey B and I went and got a 3'x5' sheet of 1/8" carbon steel. I had to wash this off really well to get the oil from manufacturing off, then rub it down with vegetable oil to keep it from rusting. If I decide to do this for years to come I will probably end up getting a sheet of stainless steel and making this again.
I don't have a big fancy bending brake to make the pan, so we had to get a little creative. The steel was much too thick to bend as-is by any sort of hand bending method, so we decided to score the bending lines with a circ saw to make it a bit easier. I wish I had pictures of this part because it was probably the most interesting, but we were too busy swearing and yelling at each other we forgot to stop and take pictures. I hate that guy. Basically I set the depth of the blade to half the thickness of the steel, then slowly cut along the lines, and eventually cut out the corners. We tried an angle grinder first, but that was taking way too long for a couple old impatient dudes. If you ever do this make sure you have a carbide tipped blade, and you never heard of this technique from me. I have included a picture with comments to help clarify what I'm talking about. Once all the lines were scored and the corners were cut out we were able to bend the sides (with help from a 3 lb hammer) and weld the four corners so that it doesn't leak.
Step 4: Constructing the Cooking Setup
If you're as cheap as me you're not going to use propane to boil your sap, so you're going to need to make some sort of wood fire cooking apparatus. Mikey and I put together a stove made of concrete block. We left one end open to feed the fire and intake air, and in the back of the stove we put a gap in the block to promote the air flowing through the fire and allow the smoke to escape out the chimney. This setup up worked really well.
Step 5: Boiling the Sap
Since I had frozen all of our sap I had to set it out a while in advance for it to thaw. If you're wondering how long it takes to melt 50 gallons of ice, the answer is longer than two days. So we still had quite a bit of ice when we started our boiling, but it wasn't too big of a deal. This part of the process is time consuming and there's really not much to it, add some sap when it gets a little low in the pan, and add some wood when the fire gets low. So you can take care of other chores while the sap is boiling. Or you can do what we did, which was battle rap and have vigorous debates about advanced Indian leg wrestling technique.
After about 8 hours we had the bulk of the sap boiled down to about 2 gallons, so we transferred the sap from the big boiling pan to a stock pot on a propane turkey fryer. We filtered the sap with cheesecloth when we transfered to the stock pot but I don't think this worked very well, more on this later. The stock pot will just give us a lot more control to get the sap to the point where we need it. We brought the sap to a boil on the turkey fryer. When the water boils out the sap temperature will start to rise. Seven degrees above boiling is the temperature when you can officially call this syrup. We had already done a test with the stock pot to find that with our elevation and our thermometer water boiled at 210, so we needed to get the sap/syrup up to 217 degrees. You can do this portion of the boiling inside on your stove, just be aware that it will boil over really fast, so don't take your eyes off it.
Step 6: Bottling
After you have reached 7 degrees above boiling you are all done, you have now made syrup. We transferred the syrup from the stock pot into some small jars so we could distribute the syrup to a few unfortunate people. We filtered the syrup again using a reusable coffee filter, but we still ended up with a ton of sugar sand in the final syrup, so I'm not sure what we should have done differently. The sugar sand isn't harmful at all, but it's just not desirable.
The final crucial step in making your own syrup is to go to the store and just buy it. For realsies though, our syrup ended up with a very unique taste unlike any syrup I have had before. It is very very sweet, and I think it tastes like cotton candy. If I were to be honest it's not my favorite flavor of syrup, but my wife says she likes it better than other syrups, so it's just a matter of taste. That's part of the deal when you have real maple syrup, no two are going to be the exact same.
Step 7: Final Thoughts
Now it's time for my favorite part of a project: What have we learned?
This project is so unique in that the end result could be dependent on so many variables (freezing the sap, location of trees, age of trees, did we burn the sap in the pan, etc). Without having more experience doing this, and without doing any more research yet, I can't really explain why we ended up with the unique flavor that we did. What I can comment on is what worked and what didn't in the process.
The concrete block stove worked great, it got very hot, the chimney worked perfectly and had great air flow, it burned so hot and clean there was no visible smoke. The pan worked well, if I were to do this again I would probably weld a spigot and valve off the side to make draining from the pan easier.
One thing that apparently didn't work too well is our filtering of the sugar sand. We used cheesecloth and a coffee filter, and somehow it was still in the syrup. Perhaps we should have let it cool down a smidge and settle/seperate before we filtered, there is more research and experimenting to be done on this. Another thing that didn't work well, but actually could have, is a drip system from the barrel to the boiling pan. This would allow us to keep a slow steady drip of sap into the boiling pan so we wouldn't kill the boil by adding a ton of cold sap at once. We had this set up but discovered there was a small leak in the valve, and since we were going to be standing around and drawing fake tattoos on each other all day we decided it would be much easier to just pour it into the pan by hand. If I were to have a much larger operation I think you could recoup a lot of the heat lost through the chimney by running a copper drip line coil through the chimney to preheat the sap before it enters the pan.
I could have gone into a lot more detail about certain elements of this project, but this is the abridged version. There are a lot of good resources online that know a lot more than I do. If you have experience making syrup, or you decide to try this project I would love to hear from you.