Introduction: Let's Tap Trees and Make Amber Nectar!
The warmer, sunny days have melted much of the accumulated snow. It's as muddy as... as, probably Woodstock was... from the videos I've seen. Mucky as heck, with sludge that sticks to the bottom of your goulashes that doesn't want to release... but when it does, makes this sound, "plspmmluck".
When the nights are cool, say 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and the days are
sunny and warmer, 40-50 degrees, this is when the sap flows.
What does this all mean.....?
Trees. Maple Trees. Only a special segment of a certain range of Latitudes can participate in the creation, while the rest can only hope to (over)pay for its product(ion), and hope that it is pure and unadulterated.
I've been doing this awhile and have enjoyed the variety of ways that one can make a tree bleed, the correct way, the wrong way.... let's say the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Step 1: The Basic Stuff You Need, and What to Do
What you Need
~You definitely need a tree. A certain type, also(more on that in a bit). You cannot perform this action without one. Don't even try it.
~ Having a cordless drill is awesome and makes the process super easy.
3/8" bit, masking tape as a guide to stop at 1 3/4" hole.
(You can do this by hand, probably... have fun.. hand auger.. curved chisels... just keep the above numbers in mind.)
~ Banger a$75 maple mallet is super-cute, but totally not necessary. You could use your spouse's shoe heel which they might not notice you pocked up, or you could even use... wait for it... a regular hammer. It'd be nice to just pick up one of your neighbor's nice, granite rocks... but they are frozen in the ground. Even though it is Mucky as Heck out, they're still frozen. Gawd. Why...
~ A Spile. This is the thing that carries the gorgeous Nature Fluid from the tree into your container(more on that in a bit). Native Indians made them out of Staghorn Sumac branches. Good for them. Lucky for me, I have an assortment: some from who-knows-where(came with the house), some from China(plastic shite) and some(my favorite) from... Canada... Yay!! They produce tons of syrup(and bacon... yum!) up there, so they totally know how to make a Spile.
~ A Container. The Latest are these ugly Blue Bags. The Boy has them. I prefer something else. Anything else. So I have employed a variety of containers that you'll see throughout this 'ible. Some classy, some not as much(but still classier than the Blue Bags).
What to Do
Find a Maple tree. The best time to do this is in the Fall(Autumn) when all the leaves are super-pretty, and super-obvious with their shapes and such. Label them with tacky Cuidado tape(it's cheaper than the Standard stuff. Actually, I think that's all they sell now....) You could just go all crazy and drill into every tree on your property(or your neighbor's... bad you!) and see what bleeds, but that is so dumb in every way. Plus, your cordless drill will start to die. (Not that I know from experience.. just sayin')
I offer both avenues as I want to be inclusive; for the Primitive type, and type that wants to be Primal, but isn't.
A 3/8" bit is what's called for, for two reasons. and two reasons only: All Spiles are made for 3/8" holes. That's reason #1. Why are they? Well, because a spile made any bigger would cause you to drill a larger diameter hole, and that would kill the tree. Do you want to kill the tree? What, are you a jerk? Of course not, you just want some kick-ass Amber Nectar. So, reason #2 is embedded in that.
Alternatively, you could chisel out a hole, using the above numbers as a guide, and insert your handmade bamboo or Sumac Spile. Modern technology such as Youtube shows how to make these. Or things called books, such as Native American Craft books show how as well. But if you're going that route, you'll need to have made all these Spiles way in advance, and not on the morning that you'll be tapping trees. In the next step I show photos of Spiles I made the next day, out of Staghorn Sumac.
Mark with tape no more than 1 3/4" depth on your drill bit... or chisel. The Special Place where the fluid drips is between the bark and that Other stuff, so you don't need to drill in much, just enough to put your Spile in(more on that in a bit). Matter-O-fact, if you push your Spile in too much, you've missed the boat... or the river, more specifically. You can drill the perfect hole, at the perfect angle, hammer your Spile in with the cutest of mallets, and bypass that river. So use a light touch with that mallet, okay?
How Big is Your Tree?
There is a formula(finally!) for figuring how many holes you can drill per session.
A really big tree(12-18" girth) can handle quite a few stick-ins. Lots of fluid happening is an awesome thing, and you'll notice it as you drill in. You want to offset holes to not affect down-current trickles.
As you can see from the photos, I managed to get in three times with success, getting lots of drips each time. I call that... a good time! (It was a lotta fun, and you have to experience to believe it.)
Plenty of photo exhibits, if you're into that, and even videos(!), if you're really curious. (just be sure to delete your Browsing History)
Oh, yeah, I mentioned I would talk about this(a bit earlier). It's a big deal. You can use the old-timey aluminum buckets, or the 5 gallon white buckets(really ugly, keep them from public view), cute glass jars or jugs(bonus points if you use these) or... the Blue Bags. They all offer their own pros and cons, some are less convenient but more aesthetic, some are super convenient and super ugly. The rest fall somewhere in between. (If you must know, ask in the comment section, and I'll be sure to elaborate.)
The birch reindeer that I made for our Winter decor will protect the oh-so-close-to-the-street buckets from who-knows-who would want to vandal them. (I hope the sight of a deer doesn't cause any accidents...)
Step 2: Containers!
See, you don't need special equipment!
You can use... mason jars... with zip ties(gasp!)
Totally allowed. Extra stylish people use heavy gauge wire to hold up their glass decorations, but I wanted to save my steel for other stuff.
Actually, that's a lie. We have steel coming out of... everywhere. Like I said... it was mucky as heck out there, and I thought the zip ties were awesome, as I had a pocket full of them for some reason...
Those are the Blue Bags. The Boy likes 'em, and his trusty Farm Hand likes 'em.
update: The next day, on my way to gathering sap, I stumbled upon some Staghorn Sumac branches coming out of the ground. What luck!
I cut up some 3" pieces, hollowed them out with a wire hanger, used a curved chisel and my mallet to hollow out a hole and set them into a tree. They work brilliantly! And super-stylish.(bonus points!)
Next year I'm going totally old-school. Sumac spiles only and animal skin bags. Actually, I should research that last part to see what the Natives actually used.
update: they used birch bark buckets. I'm totally making one in the next couple of days!
Step 3: Collect Your Dues
Look at that cute mason jar!
All full of goodness.
In total, I tapped Nine Holes. Not bad for a half-morning's work.
In return, I was awarded with a whole lotta fluid. I'm not even gonna brag.
(That's not classy.)
To let only the cleanest of fluids enter my pot, I filtered, to let none of the bad stuff in.
Oh, and some more video if you didn't get enough before.
Step 4: Fire!!!
Yup. This is going to take awhile. Gather appropriate sustenance.
The Boy does it on the wood stove in the living room, which is all practical and stuff because it heats the house and adds some much-needed humidity to the interior air. I, on the other hand, wanted to bond with nature(and beer.. and salami, grapes...)
I like the contrast of nature and technology when it comes to conveying a message(and, oh, yeah... living) and coincidentally the lovely Boy brought out his fancy equipment to test my constitution.
The pretty watery stuff that comes out of a maple tree(and supposedly Birch trees, but I've never gotten one to bleed) is about 2.5% sugar. To state the obvious, that means that the rest is 97.5% water.
Holy Crap! You mean Syrup doesn't just fall outta trees?
Nope. It's a lot of work to make this somewhat-sweet water turn into the gooey stuff that we all crave on top of our waffles and flapjacks.
The sixth photo is of my camera looking through the lens of the hydrometer. The darkened section is difficult to read, but shows 2.5%. That is when it is starting out. You have to evaporate, and evaporate, and... to finally get the sugar percentage up to...
(the Boy says 67, but I like it a bit more sticky)
And don't pass up the video, for all the action.
Step 5: Lots of Readings...
Not gonna say this is boring, because it is exciting to see the readings change from 3.1 to 49, et cetera, but this is where Sap Geeks get off, and others may not.
I had about 2 gallons of sap, total, collected from the Nine Holes(in 5 hours, not bragging). I halved it and put half on my cute outdoor fire pit thing, and decided (after about 1.5 hours/33 oz of beer) to bring the other half in to evaporate on the stove. (yay, technology and choices!)
The indoor stuff evaporated much faster, but the outdoor stuff had much more Me Value. After emptying out the contents of my wood shop scrap pile and some of the rocket mass heater inventory(shh, don't tell the Boy) to fuel the fire, the Smokey Sap was totally outperformed by the Propane Sap, hands down. But I like to think the Outdoor stuff got a good start, and it was a good vehicle for Dinner appetizers... well, for me, anyway.
Look at all the photos of the refractometer readings if you want, it's like a flip book of a sappy good time.
Step 6: Reducing Size, and Lots More Pics
At some point, things start to get smaller, and you need to recognize this.
Surface area is your friend when you want to evaporate, but when the liquids start to become more precious, as the concentration of sweet increases, you need to provide a smaller receptacle so as not to burn your syrup.
At this point, you will realize that all of the work you have done thus far is the culmination of something so special, almost indescribable.
If you don't have any fancy equipment, have no fear, it's totally doable.
You need to boil this stuff down until it is kinda thick. There, I said it, no science.
But, there are some things you need to do.
You need to filter.
Scum comes around. You need to get rid of that.
Stuff happens. Air, cats, grass, dirt. Whatever. Find the best filters. As you can see, I used the best. A frickin $250 sweater that somehow was washed and shrunken to un-usefulness, so I shrunk it into ridiculum, and now it is a perfect filter for making maple syrup.
Talk about what goes around, comes around.
Step 7: Fancy Filter
See, I told ya.
It worked brilliantly. I filtered the sap a couple of times throughout, not just waiting until the end. This is the ..
More boring readings, and the photos to prove it.
It was super-exciting at the time, but somehow does not translate that way in an instructable..
You'll just have to trust me and experience it for yourself.
Step 8: Time to Make Pancakes!
This is what the whole day has been about, creating this experience-turned-delicacy.
Only the best recipe will do, with the freshest ingredients.
Look, it's almost ready!... 64.1%
Step 9: OMG
It is finally here, it's after midnight, but that's okay. We are night owls.
Use a good-quality glass container to pour your Amber nectar into.
After an hour or two, put it in the fridge.
If it gets used up before it makes it into the chill box, that's okay,
tomorrow's another day,
and the Sap continues to Drip.
Step 10: The Culmination of It All, But First, the Cat.
"Darling Daughter, pancakes are ready... and FRESH maple syrup!
Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt your Cat Moment....
Anyway, when you two are done....."
"Oh, my gosh! You made pancakes? It's after Midnight... and this is the syrup from what you've been doing today?"
"Oh, My Gosh, Thank you!"