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Tap Your Maple's Liquid Gold

It's no secret that food tastes better when you make it yourself, and home-made maple syrup is no exception. People have been collecting sap to boil into the sweet treat for centuries. The tradition continues today. People like David Cozac of Keswick Ridge, NB, head into their backyards as the cold chill of winter gives way to warmer days for this annual activity.

Cozac, an organic farmer, first learned how to turn slightly sweet maple sap into the rich, sweet syrup while helping his father-in-law on his farm near Fredericton in the 1970s. When Cozac and his wife bought their own property in the area in the 1990s, he used the techniques he had learned from his father-in-law, and tips from the provincial government, to begin collecting sap from his own maple trees. Now, every spring, he goes from one tree to another, drilling holes and attaching buckets to collect sap to boil into maple syrup.

Cozac taps up to 80 trees each spring in order to harvest enough maple sap to provide the couple's sole sugar source for the year. But syrup harvesting doesn't have to be a large-scale affair. With just some basic tools, three or four maple trees in the backyard, and a few days of work, any homeowner can taste the sweetness of this Atlantic Canadian tradition.

Materials Needed:

  • Hand drill or electric drill
  • Clean wash bucket or a barrel
  • Drill bit, 1 cm in diameter
  • Metal spiles (found at farm Co-op stores, or can be ordered at hardware stores)
  • Buckets, with covers, to collect sap (These can either be metal buckets specifically made for sap collection, available at the same places as the spiles, or five-gallon plastic buckets,     with a hole 10 cm in diameter cut in one side of the bucket's lid. Plastic buckets should also have a small hole drilled into side, about one centimetre from top.) 
  • Outdoor fire pit
  • Large metal pan (such as a large, old roasting pan) or stock pot
  • Candy thermometer
  • Fine sieve, or cheesecloth
  • Clean, dry, sealable bottles or Mason jars.

How To:

Begin tapping your maple trees at the end of March or in early April, once the days are warmer than 0ºC, but while the temperature at night is still below freezing. To tap the tree, use the bit and brace, or an electric drill to cut a hole about 5 cm deep. Don't drill any more than one hole in trees 26-31 cm in diameter. However, if a tree is bigger than 31 cm around, you can tap the tree twice, with the holes drilled on opposite sides of the tree.

Firmly insert the larger end of the spile into the tree. The spile shouldn't move easily when tugged from side to side.

Fit the hole in the side of the bucket over the hook at the bottom of the spile, and suspend the bucket. The sap should drip from the tip of the spile into the bucket.

Each day, empty each buckets contents into the wash pail or barrel, then replace the bucket on the side of the tree. Continue until you have enough sap to fill the pan or pot.

When you have collected the desired amount of sap, build a wood fire in the pit. Place the pot either directly on the fire or on a metal grate positioned in the middle of the flames. Boil the sap until it begins to thicken and darken. The amount of time it takes to boil down depends on the heat of the fire and the amount of sap, but Cozac says people should expect the process to take at least seven hours. Make sure it doesn't boil over, or become too thick.

When the sap has thickened and become a light golden brown, it is "finished" by letting it boil at 104ºC until it reaches the consistency of syrup.

Experiment with how long you boil the syrup during the finishing process. Syrup boiled until it is a pale golden brown has a delicate taste. Darker syrups have a stronger, more carmelized flavour.

Let the syrup cool, and strain it through a fine sieve or piece of cheesecloth, to remove the fine silt that is naturally present in maple sap.

Pour the syrup into bottles or Mason jars and close tightly until syrup is served. Make some pancakes and enjoy.

When you have made all the syrup you want for the year, or when the night temperatures start to warm to close to 0 ºC, take the spiles out of the trees. Wash the spiles and buckets with hot water and soap to remove the stickiness. Store them for use next year.

Tips

Sugar maples are the ideal trees for making syrup, with their 40:1 water ratio (this means it takes 40 litres of sap to make one litre of syrup). However, many people easily mistake the red maple for its sweeter cousin. While you can still make maple syrup from the sap of these trees, it takes a lot more work: red maple sap has a 70:1 water ratio. Forest technician Garth Davies of Perth Andover, NB, says the best way to identify a maple is to look at the tree's branches. "A red maple's branches have buds at the ends that are red, round and very visible," he says. "A sugar maple has less visible buds. These buds are more sharp, more pointy at the ends."

Cover the buckets to keep bark pieces, dirt and animals out of the sap.

To give your arms and back a bit of a break when collecting sap from the buckets on the trees, pull the pail or barrel from tree to tree on a toboggan (securing the pail onto the sled with ropes).

Always do the initial evaporation outdoors. As the steam rises from the boiling sap, it carries some sugar with it. If the sap is boiled indoors, this leaves a sticky deposit on the walls and ceiling. You can do the finishing work on an indoor stove, where you can better control the temperature of the syrup. You can also finish the syrup the day after you boil it down.

Forest technician Garth Davies says you can use an old aboriginal trick to speed up the evaporation process: leave the pan, bucket or barrel in which you store the collected sap, outdoors. In the mornings, break the layer of ice off the top and throw it out. Davies says this ice is just water and therefore gives you a head start in concentrating the sugar in the sap.

To create maple sugar products other than syrup, simply boil the sap at a higher temperature. Boiling the syrup to 111.5ºC makes maple butter, whereas 114.5ºC makes maple toffee, and 118ºC makes hard sugar.

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