By BILL ZIEGLER
For The Daily News
CRYSTAL FALLS - Most of us love pure maple syrup, but it is fairly expensive to buy. If you own, or can "borrow" some maple trees, you can try your hand at making maple syrup.
When you are lacking enough maple trees, I have found that many people will let you tap their trees for a share of the valuable finished maple syrup. However, you will definitely need to work out an agreement before tapping another property owner's trees.
Some of the most productive maple trees (and earliest to have a sap run) are the maple trees with large tops (crown area) in house yards.
If you have never made maple syrup, you will find it is an excellent family activity. It is a great way to pass on some traditional outdoor skills to your children and/or grandchildren.
All you need is about five to 10 maple taps (drilled holes for sap spouts) and some basic equipment to get started.
There is no upper limit, but if you have more than about 20 taps you may need more expensive equipment to boil it down. Any maple tree will work, although sugar maples are the best species to use.
The number of taps that can be placed in a maple tree varies depending on its size (diameter). A few large-diameter maple trees will easily meet the five to 10 taps I previously referred to.
U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines say you should only make one tap in a maple tree that is about 10 inches in diameter. The tap holes are placed about two to four feet above the ground.
The tap holes are drilled three inches deep so that you access the white "sap wood." To give some perspective, a maple tree with a 25-inch diameter or greater can be tapped in four spots.
If you are tapping a tree that has been tapped before, you should drill the hole at least six inches away from last year's tap hole scar (the hole heals up on its own).
Commercial maple syrup producers need a large amount of expensive equipment. It is possible to scale the equipment down and produce limited amounts of maple syrup on a budget.
More local hardware stores are carrying basic syrup making supplies as this activity has seen resurgence in popularity.
At minimum you need the following:
1. A 1/2- or 7/16-inch wood drill bit
2. Long life portable battery power drill (18 volt) or hand drill ("brace and bit")
3. Sap spiles (spouts) with hangers for each tap hole.
4. One bucket (about two-gallon) or special sap bag per tap. Bucket covers can avoid sap dilution from rain.
5. Five-gallon plastic buckets to gather the sap
6. Plastic tank (I find these at some feed mills or agriculture supply stores) to gather the sap into and transport to your sap boiling spot.
7. Evaporator pan and or large pot to boil the sap.
8. Filter paper or clean felt "hat" to filter the finished syrup.
9. Large scale thermometer or maple syrup hydrometer.
10. Pint and quart canning jars and lids.
Maple sap running season varies greatly depending on the year and the region. I have found that in northern Michigan you do not get a significant sap run until the snow melts away from the of the trunk of the maple trees.
The snow "bowl" around the darker base of the tree melts before the snow farther away from trees. In Michigan you need to watch the weather more than the calendar. Tap your trees to catch weather typically in March when it gets cold at night (below freezing or colder) and then relatively warm (best above 50 degrees) during the day.
Under ideal conditions you can get about two gallons or more of maple sap in each 24-hour period. Sugar content varies at different times of the season but the average is that it takes 40 gallons of maple sap to boil down into one gallon of maple syrup.
Sap will not run every day of the sap run season. Without the cold nights with warm days, the sap run will stop until the proper temperature conditions reoccur.
Sap should be collected daily when it is running. Ideally, you should boil it down as soon as possible to make the highest quality syrup. If maple sap sits around very long in warmer weather it quickly degrades.
Equipment to boil the sap can vary from a pot on the stove or outdoor wood cooking area to high-volume commercially purchased fuel-fired evaporator pan/pans. If you are going to boil down more than a few gallons of sap it is best to set up most of your boiling operation outside.
I find that a good compromise boiling system is some sort of wood-fired cooker, then finish it up on a high-output LP gas-burning (fish boiler) stove (available from catalog fishing suppliers). As the sap becomes more concentrated and close to completion, we transfer the boiling syrup inside to our kitchen and finish it there.
I like to use a maple syrup hydrometer that measures the density of the syrup and has a mark on the hydrometer to tell you when it is done. The other option is a large scale thermometer, which can be used to measure when the syrup maintains 180 degrees Fahrenheit so it will not spoil when canned and stored.
The boiling syrup should be checked with the thermometer or hydrometer when it turns brown and the boiling bubbles at the surface of the batch get smaller (foaming up). At this point, the syrup can quickly foam over and burn or make a mess of your pan.
The maple sap running season can last anywhere from a few days to six weeks or more. It varies from year to year.
It is very important to stop collecting sap when the maple buds pop out. If you make "buddy" syrup, all of your hours of work will have only produced bitter syrup that is not palatable.
When you are making syrup, it is better to error on quitting a little early than wasting your efforts. I stop collecting sap when I see the first aspen tree buds pop out. The maple buds don't typically develop until after the first aspen buds.
The nice thing about making syrup for fun is you can quit making it any time you need to. However, pure maple syrup makes a popular gift and you may want to make a little more than your immediate family needs.
An excellent maple syrup making reference is the U.S. Department of Agriculture Handbook No. 134 Maple Syrup Producers Manual. This handbook can be obtained from book sellers online.
You can typically obtain more maple syrup information from the Michigan State University-Extension. Another source of information is an online search engine. Some hardware stores stock a few maple syrup making supplies but if yours does not, the equipment is readily available on line.
Maple syrup production is something our predecessors learned from Native American tribes living in the Great Lakes states and New England. My family started making maple syrup in Michigan in the 1870s.
Even if you don't intend to make maple syrup for many years to come, a low budget family maple syrup operation is a great activity.