First, you gather the proper tools. Then, you find the trees.
Tapping maple trees and making maple syrup has been a popular winter pastime in Canada for centuries, and while the warming climate is making it trickier on the East Coast, it’s still an annual tradition for many.
Lisa and Dave Doucette of Concession, NS, began tapping trees five years ago, after buying land rife with old maples.
“I like maple syrup, so we thought we’d give it a try,” says Dave. “Now we know why it’s so expensive to purchase. It’s a lot of work.”
They started out by — how else? —watching YouTube. From there, it was trial and error.
The process starts in February, when the weather is in the freeze-thaw stage. The ideal conditions to get sap running are warm days (above freezing, about 5C) and cold nights (below freezing, about -5C).
In the woods, you need a few key tools, including a drill and a tap (with the drill bit matching the size of the tap), a hammer, and buckets. Dave uses mostly two-gallon and three-gallon buckets with lids. He has 55 taps and rotates the trees yearly, only using trees greater than 30 cm in diameter.
“You always drill on the south-facing side of the tree because that’s where the sun is going to hit the most,” says Dave. “If you drill on the north side, you might get some sap, but you’re not going to get the best out of the availability.”
The tap stays in the tree for the entire season, which is typically about four or five weeks.
Briana Corr Scott
When the weather is right, Dave makes the 20-minute drive to their land every day to collect the sap in
barrels in the back of his truck.
“Some years I’ve gone every day for three or four weeks,” he says, noting that other years the season wasn’t as long, and they were collecting sap while wearing T-shirts. “It all depends on when it stops freezing. Once that freeze-thaw stops, there’s no more sap.”
Dave has an old wood furnace that he converted into a boiler and set up in a 12-by-12-foot outdoor garage. Once he has the sap all collected and at home, he gets the fire going and the boiling process started.
He uses a 15-gallon square stainless-steel pan, which he had custom made, and continuously adds sap until it gets to a certain consistency. Then he moves it to propane heat and gradually reduces from a 10-gallon pot, to a five-gallon, and then a two-gallon.
“I keep going down smaller until I’m down to the size I need for the consistency we like,” says Dave. “It takes a long time to get to that point. How long also depends on the weather outside.
If it’s really cold, you can get a good fire going and the boil is good.”
Lisa adds they also strain the sap to remove any bugs, twigs, and impurities.
It takes about 40 litres of sap to make one litre of finished maple syrup. If you continue to boil it down even more, you get maple sugar.
Once the syrup is just right, they
bottle it, preferring glass jars when they have them, and put it in their cold cellar. The couple will sell some, but most is for their use.
After five years, Dave and Lisa have their system pretty well perfected, but challenges still arise. It took time to find the right pan for boiling and to get the temperature just right. Their first year, they made the mistake of boiling the syrup in their kitchen.
“People think they’re boiling sap but they’re actually boiling sugar,” says Dave. “As the boiling starts, the sugar rises with the steam, and it makes everything sticky — the entire kitchen.”
Making maple syrup is an outdoor hobby and that’s fine with them.
“It’s something to do in the winter,” says Dave. “I have the garage and I sit there with the door open when the weather’s decent and put my music on. I’ve got a little electric wood splitter and I split wood and throw it in the
furnace. I’m just having fun.”