Introduction: Back Yard Maple Syrup
Maple syrup. Not that stuff from the grocery store with an old lady on the bottle. The real stuff, like your great grandfather had before walking to school, uphill both ways of course. Can you make it? Yes, anyone who can boil water and lives in an area with the right climate can make it. Native Americans made it by dropping hot rocks into a hollowed piece of wood filled with sap. If it can be done that way, we certainly have the technology available to make it at home.
I am not a professional. I have been doing it more than ten years as a hobby. That also means that even though I may say something there is always the possibility that I am incorrect. This is a fun and rewarding hobby for me but there are also parts of it that can be unsafe. Do this at your own risk. I have done it for years and commercial makers have been doing it for centuries but you are taking liquid from a tree, cooking it then eating it.
Way back when my son was about 5 years old we took him to a sugarhouse in Vermont on vacation. I cringed when I heard: Dad, don't we have maple trees? I said that yes, we do but syrup can only be made it in the spring. I thought that was the end of it. The following February as we celebrated my birthday my son demonstrated the steel trap that is his mind. He asked his mother about her birthday. She told him march 20th, the first day of spring. I saw his face and knew something bad was coming but didn't know what it could possibly be. Dad, we can make syrup then! Uhg.
So again, I'm not a pro. In fact a pro would probably laugh at my equipment. I purposely left out pictures of some of it just so no one would be intimidated. Or laugh, it's all home made after all. Please be careful, the stuff is hot and when finished is hot and sticky. Really, you can, without the hollow log and hot stones. You can even do it that way if you want but someone else will have to make that instructable.
If you live in a climate where spring time means temperatures near 40 during the day and below freezing at night you can harvest sap and make syrup or candy with it. I live in Rhode Island so we do have that weather but it's typically for a shorter period than places further north. You must have maple trees as well. I would bet you knew that as we are making maple syrup, right? They don't have to be sugar maples. I don't have a sugar maple within ten miles of my back yard. Mine are silver maple. Any maple trees work though I'm not positive about red maples.
Step 1: Tapping.
I didn't set out this season to make an instructable. I didn't think of it until I was already processing sap so I don't have a picture of tapping the trees. I use taps designed for plastic hose. I have used and still have the old time taps with covered buckets like you would see in a Norman Rockwell painting. I bought the taps and hose pictured above from Amazon. I usually have between 5 and 10 taps depending on how much sap I want to haul around and how much syrup I want. I've had as many as 20 but I work so I just don't have time to process that much. We typically make 2 gallons or so a season.
The six gallon jugs are easy to move with a hand truck or my son's strong back. They also allow some storage if your schedule doesn't allow you to boil sap every day. I try not to let them go for more than two days. You can tap any maple tree. Trees 12 to 20 inches in diameter can support one tap, 21 to 27 will support two taps and trees over 27 will support three taps. The taps pictured above are 5/16 inch diameter. You drill at an upward angle with said 5/16 drill about three inches or so into the tree. You should see sap immediately. Make sure to drill at a height where your hoses will reach your container.
Don't have snazzy taps with nice hoses? Don't want them either? Not a problem. My first time I made mine from 3/8 copper tube and collected sap in plastic milk jugs and 2 liter soda bottles. There is probably a reason not to use copper for this but I'll let those smarter than me share that, since I don't know it. I do know that no commercial producers use copper for any of the process. I did. I'm in no way recommending using copper but the water in your house is in copper pipes. Just sayin'
I use the pictured six gallon jugs for collection and storage. I have in the past used "Brute" plastic trash cans as they claim to be FDA approved for food storage. That I recommend you research yourself because I can't remember which color cans were rated so. I used the gray ones and I know there were other colors too. They are expensive and I no longer use them.
Step 2: Boil It. Then Boil It Some More.
This is the most time consuming part. Maple trees vary and the ratio of sap to syrup does as well. It can range from 30 to 1 to as high as 70 to 1. Mine are in the lower part, roughly 35 or 40 to 1. That's a lot of boiling. I usually use a wood fired evaporator. It was getting old and tired so after last season I scrapped it thinking that would force me to build a new one. Well, best laid plans and all. Or whatever that saying is. This year I slapped together a propane fired evaporator with a turkey fryer burner at it's heart and a stainless steel steam table pan on top. I also have a valve soldered on the bottom of a soup pot I liberated from our kitchen to drip feed into the pan. Yes, that is a yellow straw sticking out of it. This allows me to let it run unsupervised while slowly feeding sap into the boiling pan. By unsupervised I mean for like 15 minutes at a time.
That's all you need, heat and a pan. Most commercial outfits use pans designed for this on top of heat sources designed for this. Lots of money for that. The biggest pan you can use will allow for the greatest evaporation of water from your sap. Some home producers put a pan over a fire balanced on some rocks. Some build things like mine. My very first was a stainless kitchen sink with a plug welded over the drain hole. Some people have used a soup pot on a hot plate with sap dripping into it from another vessel. In my experience the largest surface area with the smallest amount of liquid possible is best. The less sap you have to keep boiling the less heat you'll use.
No matter how you choose to achieve a boil or evaporation remember to do it outside. There is just a lot of steam involved in this that can do bad things to paint or wallpaper or sensitive ears when the wife decides to investigate the suddenly tropical indoor climate. Trust me, do it outside. Above all be careful, boiling liquids are not fun to wear, even for a moment, and they don't look cool either.
As you relax with your laptop and shop for newer and better equipment keep an eye on the boil. If your pan dries up for lack of sap you have a black crispy mess that's difficult to clean. The best way is a constant feed from a dripping valve but I started out by just adding sap from a bucket when the pan started to get low. That way works but stops the boil.
Foam. Yup, boiling sap has a foam on top. I've seen anti foam additives for sale from many equipment manufacturers but have never used it. Some people recommend lard as well to keep foam down. Never used it either. I use a big stainless spoon from my beer making stuff. Any spoon long enough to scoop the foam while keeping you from burning your fingers is good.
Step 3: Finishing
Finishing. I do the majority of boiling outside. I do the finishing on the kitchen stove. After boiling away gallon after gallon of sap you'll notice it start to darken. When to bring it in is something you'll learn by experience. I have a feel for the way the bubbles look. It's usually about the color of a mid range bourbon by now and the bubbles are starting to last a bit longer than they were when you started. I do mine inside as I rarely finish batches any larger than half a gallon. It's easier on the stove and I can see the TV from there. It also happens to be close to the beer drawer in the fridge.
By finishing I mean bringing it to the right temperature and consistency that you know as syrup. This is 7.5 degrees over boiling. My thermometer happens to be wrong. As we're probably 100 feet above sea level water should boil at 212 degrees. My thermometer always says 214. Whatever, I got it at the grocery store so I get what I deserve. I use a soup pot my wonderful wife has donated to the cause. She must be wonderful to put up with stuff like this for 19 years, right? Maybe she just likes my syrup.
So here I have a pot full of brownish looking stuff bubbling away at 212 degrees. (214 on my thermometer) Now you wait while it boils down. As it reduces the temperature will start to rise above boiling. This is where it's nice to have a digital thermometer with an alarm. I set it at 217 (219 on mine) and watch reruns of Gold Rush. You can do all this by eye with a little trial and error. Experience helps. I did all last years finishing by eye. As it it gets close to 219.5 degrees (221.5 on mine, I gotta buy a new one) the bubbles will start to build in the pan. This is where no distractions should be allowed to exist.
When it hits that magic stage known as maple syrup the bubbles will start climbing the sides. Trust me, you'll know. If you go past that it's not a problem, you'll have slightly darker and thicker syrup. If you are watching a really good TV show and go way, way past the syrup stage you might end up with that maple candy we all love so much. You may also end up explaining to an irritated fireman that you let the kitchen catch fire while watching TV and that you destroyed hours of work in the process. Just stay on it and pull it off the heat at 219.5.
I go from the stove burner to the filter. What filter? No, you don't have to buy anything. I had a linen napkin that possibly came from a nice restaurant. No, I didn't steal it. The guy that brought uniforms and shop rags to work also delivered napkins to nice restaurants. He also sold bags of ripped ones for a couple of bucks. They're great for lint free wiping needs and also for filtering syrup. I now have an old terrycloth dish towel. It never goes in the laundry. You don't want laundry detergent in the syrup you just spent all that time making. I wash it in hot water and wring it out then boil it in a pot for a few minutes. I've used this one for two seasons. I stretch it around a large pyrex mixing bowl and pour the hot syrup through it. It takes several minutes but all the floating debris in your syrup will be gone. Use Pyrex or something else that won't explode as you put hot syrup in it.
Above are pictures of the beginning of the finishing and the bubbles at the end of finishing. Hot, sticky boiling sap hurts. Been there, done that. I did that so I would have such sage advice available to you. Don't spill hot syrup on yourself. It hurts and your wife will laugh about how sweet you are as she bandages your wounds. Or she'll laugh and tell you to do it yourself since she already did this same thing last year.
Step 4: Bottle It.
Not the hardest part but still important. You need a clean bottle and a funnel. Sterile wouldn't hurt but I don't bother to sterilize any more. I just wash with hot soapy water and rinse it. Then I rinse it several more times. No soap suds in my syrup! Said bottle also has to be able to stand up to some heat. Clean the pan you just did your finishing in and put the filtered syrup back in it. You want to bottle at a minimum of 180 degrees. I like to heat up until it just starts to boil again then bottle it. I pour it through the funnel and when done quickly cap the bottle and invert it so the entire bottle and cap get heated.
That's it. Done! just clean up all the sticky equipment and put it away. Then make some pancakes or French toast with some bacon and have at it. After all that work you may as well enjoy it immediately.
If you want to go further you can buy a grading kit and all that jazz. I never bothered. As your maple season progresses you will see each batch of syrup is darker than the one before. That's natural. Many people prize that first golden batch of the season and it is very good but my preference is a slightly darker mid-season batch.
Be careful and have fun. I know I poked some fun at safety but it is very easy to be burned doing this. You're moving pots and pans of boiling liquid and probably around open flames of some sort. At the end it it's sticky too and just burns and burns until you get water on it.