Today is February 11, at least as I write this.
The groundhog in Punxsy has proclaimed spring is on the way.
Time to tap the maple trees is rapidly approaching. Pick sugar maples and/or black maples if the sap you are going to collect is for syrup making.
My method of making maple syrup is heavy on frugality, which is part and parcel with the foraging mentality.
I especially like getting good things for nothing.
I expend no expense whatsoever for collecting maple sap or making maple syrup - except maybe a bit on the the electric bill.
But I only make around a pint + of maple syrup each year so any electric usage on my bill, that I can attribute to making syrup, is so minimal as to not even warrant mention.
If you like to get things for nothing read on.
If you are only going to collect sap for drinking then any appropriate sized maple, box elder, birch and basswood tree will will do. Many people don't realize it but just drinking the sap is great on it's own. No 'cooking down' needed. It's vitamin water purely filtered by the tree and delicious.
Other maples such as red or silver maple can also render syrup but generally have less sugar in their sap and they 'break bud' too soon which gives any syrup from budding trees an off flavor.
To check if sap is ready to collect from the appropriate aged sugar or black maples in your area break off a piece of a small limb - make sure it's a live limb - carve it at the end where you broke it with your pocketknife a little bit and you will be able to tell in a few minutes if there is plenty of moisture at the limb end.
A definite drip is really a good sign. If there is it's time to tap that tree and collect sap for syrup making.
You don't need to be in the maple syrup business to gather a bit of sap for making a little syrup.
I gather enough sap from one tree in the front yard to finish off a pint of syrup. I start the collecting at around 11 in the morning and the next morning I am usually close to having collected 5 gallons.
The average yield of syrup from sap is generally stated as being 1 from 40. The syrup yield is directly proportional to % of sugar in the sap.
Actually, the exact figure determined in the 1940's, is that if you are collecting maple sap that has a 2% sugar consistency ( average for sugar maples ) than it requires 43 gallons of such sap to end up with 1 gallon of syrup.
That is maple syrup gospel according to Fred H. Taylor* - see citation below.
So that means that if you collect 40 pints of sap ( which equals 5 gallons ) you will probably end up with around 1 pint of syrup after cooking down the sap.
Some sugar maples produce sugar in their sap which can be as high as 6%. Although rare it does happen.
You can see then that with such high sugar sap you can make that same pint of maple syrup with 1/3 the amount of sap. Instead of 5 gallons of sap 1.66 gallons will suffice.
Much more likely is finding 4% sugar sap. At that concentration you only need 2.5 gallons ( 20 pints ) to make a pint of syrup.
I could make more syrup easily since my neighbors have a few of the same trees I could tap but I have too many fires going, that is, I have a lot, and I mean a lot, of other things that I love to do so making one pint + of maple syrup is plenty for me.
After I get my pint of syrup from all the sap that is collected the rest of the easily procured sap is used as a regular drink.
I drink it in the spring instead of water. It is nature's way of filtering water and adding healthful benefits to it. The sap is very tasty, with a hint of sweetness. An ice cold glass of sap is great and has the added benefit of having many vitamins, minerals and nutriments good for the body.
Koreans, Japanese and Native Americans know the benefits of unprocessed maple sap.
For the sap collecting:
Carpenter's Brace ( hand drill ).
Drill bits - various sizes to match the size of the spile / spigot that you plan on tapping into the hole.
Spile / spigot - a spile is what you drive into the drilled hole in the tree for the sap to run out.
A small mallet to tap in the spile.
A collecting container(s) for hanging on the spile on the tree.
A container(s) to empty the collected sap into every hour or so that you can put in the refrigerator. You will want enough
containers that will accumulate 5 gallons of sap.
For the syrup making:
A thermometer that can read above 212°F
Pots - for heating and shifting liguids around
A wide open pan of some sort to boil the sap
A piece of muslin ( for filtering - an old pillow or sheet will do )
Wooden spoons ( to mix with and to use as a measuring gauge )
Strainer or colander ( to hold the muslin piece for filtering )
Fancy container to keep your maple syrup in ( ask someone to save you a fancy jug they may have )
Front yard sugar maple tree.
This one tree provides more than 5 gallons of sap in a 24 hour period when the sap is really running.
Tapping The Maple Tree and Gathering The Sap
First off you need a spile. You tap that into the hole you drill so the sap can run out into a container. If you have various size drill bits you should be able to match a spile size to the drill bit size.
I use an elderberry branch to make a spile.
It is easy to cut one, remove the pith and taper one end that will enter the tree hole. Plus they are free and fun to make.
Sap will flow at various rates during the spring - depending on the weather. Some days it will flow really fast.
When the nights are cold and the days warm the sap can drip at a 'one second drip rate'. That's about a quart per hour.
At that rate you can get 5 gallons of collected sap in a 24 hour period. Most of the time it will be around 3 1/2 to 4 gallons.
Tap/drill the tree trunk on the sunny side, preferably under a big healthy limb, and at a height that is easy for you to work at. For me I like the holes at about waistbelt height.
As you drill the hole keep an eye on the drill turnings as they exit the hole. They should be very damp. In fact, if you drill slow enough, which is what I like to do, you will see the sap dripping even before you tap the spile in the hole.
I use a gatorade type bottle or pop bottle, whatever is handy. I cut some slits at the top-rear of the bottle and force the bottle over the spile.
A rubber band twisted around the spile a few times then stretched over the bottle neck holds it firmly in place.
A double tap in this old tree.
The rubber band is twisted around the spile several times then stretched over the neck of the bottle.
It keeps the bottle firmly in place - even in wind storms.
When a container is full, or almost full, it is just a matter of removing the cap, tipping it sideways and emptying it into a collecting bottle. Or, aIternatively, remove the rubber-band from the bottle neck, remove the bottle and empty it into the larger collecting jug.
I keep each collecting jug in the refrigerator for a day or two and when 5 gallons have accumulated I am ready to cook down the sap.
I like to keep my sap fresh until I process it so it goes in the fridge.
Plus, since it is cold in the refrigerator, I am always filling a glass to drink. So, it takes me a few days to accumulate 5 gallons for processing.
An alternative sap collecting method is to attach a tube to the spile, or insert a tube into the hole, and let the sap collect directly into a 5 gallon bucket sitting on the ground. As long as the temperature stays at or under 40 degrees the sap can be held like that and remain fresh. Warmer than 45 degrees is not good. Spoilage will start to set in. A 5 gallon bucket may not be a good idea if the collecting is done over several days and the bucket just sets there.