For Love of Sap

2017 marks the twelfth year or so that we have tapped maples trees on our property. I don’t remember why we decided to do this back then so I guess I’ll blame Hank. We crossed paths with this curmudgeon a long time ago. He became a great friend and the go-to guy when we started our quest to make the best syrup around (in my mind!). It was a challenge to compete with Peterson’s Sugarhouse. He gave us buckets and taps and shared books about the whole process. Steve became his tour guide during Maple Weekend as the Sugarhouse always had an overflow crowd during this event. So to prep for the day he took books home to read and learn and have the facts at the ready for the many inquisitive minds that would stop by on Peabody Row.

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We started sugaring as a family thing to do. Leah was a sophomore in high school. She couldn’t get a job yet but she could work on a farm and I knew Hank was looking for helpers during the sugaring season. Collecting sap was not her ideal job and she let me know it but I suggested she see this as a way to help a senior citizen. I can look back at my humble beginnings in the same way because I was in her shoes once. My first job (not including babysitting) was working on a family farm picking strawberries. Then in the farm station wagon we’d be dropped off in the middle of the north pasture to fill bushel baskets with beans – so many varieties of beans. I never knew there were so many!

I wanted to introduce our girls to work outside in the field or forest since it’s what I have always liked to do. Growing our own veggies and picking wild blackberries and blueberries was something I needed them to participate in whether they wanted to or not. Hopefully, they’ll look back at the things we did and go forward in the same way.

I made a list of the way in which we do our own sugaring. It’s simple and it’s something out of nothing so to speak. A bucket of sap looks like water. Gather enough buckets of water boil it down and now there’s the sweet treat for those pancakes! Granted it does take time but anything worth the wait takes time, right?

Here we go:

Check with NH maple producers for their sources of sugaring supplies or online suggestions.

  1. Supplies: Metal buckets to put on the trees. Taps, one per each bucket. Plastic gallon buckets with covers and handles for gathering the sap. Several pasta pots (or larger). An outside gas burner (or inside) for one large pot or a gas grill might work. Wool batting from a fabric store cut into approximately 12 inch squares. # 9 Nails (and hammer) for hanging the buckets. A soft hammer for pounding in the taps. A portable drill and 7/32” drill bit. A fine mesh kitchen strainer for the collected sap to clear out bits of debris. A heavy duty temperature gauge. Plastic syrup containers or glass jars which have been sterilized. (Boil in water for 10 minutes. Set aside.)
  2. Identify the maple trees before the season is underway. Sugar maple is the highest ratio 40 to 1 but you may tap other maples. So 40 gallons of sap reduces to 1 gallon of syrup or 40 cups of sap to 1 cup of syrup for the average Joe. In the fall look at the fallen leaves or ones still on the tree. There are subtle differences. I recommend getting a tree book to have on your shelf. It’s a fun reference to have for other adventures, too. I look to identify the twig structure after all the leaves are off and pick out tapping potentials that way. Keep a notebook or mark your trees. Decide how many may be practical to begin.
  3. Start putting supplies together in the fall. We are very fortunate that Hank set us up with buckets and taps and still use the same ones from long ago. We keep everything in a wooden cabinet in the shed all set to go. Make sure everything is clean (no soap). Keep covered with plastic bags or tarps.
  4. Enjoy the winter season!
  5. When February rolls around is the time to start to pay attention to the prime weather conditions. Temperatures that rise above freezing (40’s) during the day and go below 32 degrees at night. When this becomes a theme it signals the right conditions to tap your trees.
  6. Begin the process by selecting a side of the tree approximately 3 to 4 ft. from the base. Take the drill with proper bit and drill at a slight upward angle about an inch and a quarter into the wood. Place the tap into the opening and gently hit it in with the soft hammer. Re drill the opening slightly if the tap needs to be placed further into the tree.
  7. Hammer a nail near the tap where the bucket will hang. Place the bucket on the nail with the tap inside. Place the cover on the bucket. Repeat. Sometimes the sap will start running immediately.
  8. At the end of the day bring a covered bucket to each tree and empty the contents. Make a note of which gives more sap. Hank was diligent about keeping track of ones better than others and it changed due to the weather in the spring, summer and fall of the prior year.
  9. Start the boil when you can fill the pasta pots and have time to keep an eye on it all. Hours later you may see a reduction and a slight change in color as the water is evaporated. It will read the boil at 210 degrees for the longest time. As the color darkens the temperature will start to increase. This is where you must be on guard to a potential boil over. You may need to lower the temp to keep this from happening but it’s not the time to watch TV. Putting the contents into a smaller pot will make it easier for you. It’ll seem like forever to get the last bit water to evaporate and for the temperature to be at the ideal of 219 degrees or a bit higher but then YEE HA!!!It’s almost syrup!!!
  10. Place 6 sheets of the filter fabric over a quart size container leaving a crater in the middle. Slowly pour the syrup into the crater and let it filter through. Repeat. Meanwhile, put several of the sterile jars into a very hot water bath to prep it for the hot contents to be added. When the syrup is filtered remove a jar from the water bath and slowly with small funnel in place pour the contents close to the top. Place the cover or seal on top and secure. Tip jar upside down in place. Repeat.
  11. Congratulations! You have just made a product from nothing, adding nothing to it but a lot of time, effort and pride!

 

This year, I made a HUGE faux pas. I bottled the syrup before it was truly ready. In my haste, I misread the temperature at 217 degrees and assumed it was all set. WRONG.

I opened it all the containers and boiled it down which took another HOUR. 219 – 220 degrees is NECESSARY to be syrup and not a watery liquid. Luckily I had pre-sterilized more containers and had them ready.

As the weather took a turn and more cold days were in the forecast I knew it was time and removed all the buckets, taps and nails. Until next year…

Whenever you have the opportunity to have REAL syrup, enjoy it for the time and effort it took to bring you the best sweet treat in New Hampshire.