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Homestead Maple sugaring, for aesthetics,. economy and ecology

 
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It's that time of year again when folks with a number of near at hand maple trees might entertain the thought of making homegrown Maple syrup products. Many prospective sugarers are probably deterred by the thought that Maple sugaring might be complicated and expensive. In this post I hope to put both of those worries behind us and get down to sugaring.
Maple sugaring does not have to be expensive we have been sugaring for decades with almost no monetary expense whatsoever. Labor is another matter, however sugaring is a labor of love (we love maple sugar).
The other concern, that Maple sugaring is complicated is absolutely not true--keep in mind that North Americans have been producing Maple products for centuries with no more than Stone age tools.
So where to begin? For acquiring the sap from the trees,  you need the following equipment:
1. A boring tool for drilling holes into the trees.
The simplest tool is a bit brace and one half inch auger bit and 1/4 in twist bit. These can be found at garage sales, second hand stores or on eBay.
2. You will need a hatchet and or pocket knife for fashioning the spiles, a 3/8 in file is also handy.
3. A wooden or leather mallet for tapping the spiles into the tree.
4. Spiles, the little pipe like objects you drive into the hole you bored in the tree. These drain the sap.
You could buy metal spiles, but that's bad economy, and why miss all the fun of making your own, wooden spiles are more interesting and look nicer.
To make your own spiles, find a good solid preferably green branch about 1 in in diameter(we use maple of course). Cut the branch into about 4-in lengths, then whittle or shave one end to a taper that is about 1/2" in diameter at the end. This is the end that goes into the tree. Now secure the spile vertically in a vise and with your quarter inch twist drill, drill a hole straight down through the center starting with the half inch tapered end. Don't worry if the hole does not come out the other end exactly in the center. If your quarter inch bit isn't long enough to go all the way through spile, just turn the spile over and start again in the center of the other end, the two holes will meet somewhere in the middle. Now just true them up with repeated runs of the 1/4" bit from both ends. Now you have a tapered spile with a hole all the way through it.
Now look your spile over and decide which surfaces are to be the top and bottom. For the top look for bumps that will help prevent the pail bail from sliding off, if there are no bumps on the top side take a saw or file and make a groove in the top about one quarter inch deep, about an inch from the front of the spile. This groove will locate and secure the pail bale. On the bottom side of the spile shave away about an inch back and at an angle to allow the sap to cleanly drip off the end of the spile. Finished, your spile should now look similar to the ones in the photos.

Now you need pails for collecting the running sap.
This is easy, go to your local restaurant or other establishment that serves food, or a recycling center and ask for as many number 10 size tin cans as you need. These cans hold about 0.86 gallon, and work just fine as long as you check your trees daily.
Take your cans and punch a small 1/8 inch or so hoie on each side of the top just below the rim, you can use a punch, drill or even a nail. Now take coat hanger wire or something of similar thickness and make a hoop five or six inches tall and as wide as the can. Then bend about an inch on each end of the hoop inward, push the bent ends through the holes in the top of the tin and then bend them upwards to secure.
We avoid using plastic containers for collecting the sap, plastic can leach all types of chemicals into food products which will then be consumed, and also for aesthetic reasons, the Sugar Bush looks quite picturesque, Norman Rockwell as I like to say, with the cans hanging from the trees, also when the first drops of sap hit the bottom of the tin can you will hear the distinctive pinging sound, confirming that sugar season has officially started.

Now take your brace, 1/2" auger bit, your spiles, pails and mallet, and go find your maple trees. Any maple trees will work, we have Red maple and Sugar maple,
Drill your 1/2" hole about 2 ft above the ground on the sunny side of the tree and about 1-1/2 to 2 in deep, you can use masking tape wrapped around the bit as a depth gauge. Drill the hole at a slight downward angle towards yourself. If the trees are running you won't be able to get the spile in before sap starts running down the tree. Tap your spile in about 3/4 in or until snug, hang your pail and wait for the "melody of the pails" that only Old Time tappers knew. You are now experiencing a bit of maple sugar history. However the sweetest part is yet to come, next post I'll describe how we boil down the sap for syrup and sugar.
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Rich Rayburn
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TRANSPORTING AND BOILING THE SAP.
Okay the trees are tapped and the sap is running.
Now you'll need to transport the sap to the boiler.
We use 5 gallon pails with lids, with the handle grabs padded for easy carrying. I use an old fashioned shoulder yolk for carrying the pails, although sleds and toboggans could be used if there's still snow on the ground. For storing the sap we have collected as many stainless steel stock pots as we could find, the bigger the better. We managed once to barter maple syrup for a 14 gallon stock pot, nice trade!  When storing the sap prior to boiling, keep the containers out of sunlight and cool, the sap, if too warm can mold and sour. Packing the containers in snow works well.

For the initial boiling down, you need a heat source, ,some stainless steel pots or buffet pans (we have two buffet pans ,12x20x6-in deep and 12x12x4 in deep, also a candy type thermometer.
Our heat source for boiling down is our kitchen wood cook stove, which runs a good portion of most days, during syrup season,it runs most of the day. Our log cabin takes up the steam given off quite well, however in a conventional house the steam may create issues. Most people do the initial boiling of their sap outside, this can be done on an outdoor wood stove or a fire pit made of cinder blocks with a rack on top to hold the containers. Each homestead has to decide on the type of boiling system they want. Many people also make or buy large, stainless steel pans or evaporators.

Now build a good fire underneath the sap containers and keep feeding in good dry wood. Depending on volume this could take most of the day.
When you've boiled off about 90% or so of volume and the sap tastes quite sweet, use the candy thermometer and check the temperature, if the temperature is around 190 to 200°  the sap can be taken in the house to finish on your cook stove.

For Finishing Off and jarring you'll need:
1. Mason jars, usually pints or quarts.
2. Lids and rings for the canning jars.
3. A jarring funnel, preferably metal.
4. Cheesecloth, two to four layers.
5. A candy thermometer.
6. A heat resistant surface to place the jars on, such as a wooden cutting board.
7. A pot to sterilize the jars in, with a rack on the bottom to prevent the jars from cracking (water bath canner).
8. A canning jar lifter also comes in handy.

Keep attentive of the sap once it reaches 200° or so.
If not watch the syrup can get away quite rapidly and boil over!
The syrup is ready to jar when the temperature reaches about 7° above the boiling point of water for your elevation. Water boils 2° lower for every thousand feet higher you are above sea level.
We boil at 217°, because we're 1,000 ft above sea level (boiling point 210 + 7).

While waiting for syrup temperature, put your clean jars in the water bath canner, and put some hot water in a small saucepan with the lids in it, don't boil the lids!
When the syrup reaches temperature, lower the heat and move the syrup to the side. It's now ready to jar.

1.Take a jar out of the boiling water.
2. Place the jar on your cutting board.
3. Put the funnel in the jar, with the cheesecloth placed in it.
4. Use a cup to fill the jar to about 1/2 " from the top.
5. Take the hot lid out of the saucepan and seal the jar with a lid, and ring.
If all goes according to plan,
in a short while you should hear the jar seal with an audible pop!
The syrup you just made should last for years, we still have a jar from 2013 this is as clear as the day it was jarred.  Enjoy!

Making sugar is another issue, last year we put up 9 gallons of granulated maple sugar, if anyone's interested I would describe that process too.




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The only thing I'd add to the "canning" process is that if I'm going to use a ladle or mug to transfer food to a sterilized jar, I put that tool in the sterilizing bath also. I get it out using the jar grabber a minute or so before I'm ready to start filling so that it cools enough to be handled. Maybe I'm being paranoid, but neither my mug cupboard, nor my miscellaneous kitchen tool drawer are exactly pristine - clean yes, sterile no!

That said, the Pacific Wet Coast is known for its wonderful mold, mildew, fungi etc!
 
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Thanks, Rich. I was wondering how syrup season was going for you. The process looks straight forward after you have made a bit of preparation. Thanks for showing us how to do it so frugally.
 
Rich Rayburn
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Thanks Jay, sterilizing everything is always a good idea!
Jeremy, you're welcome,  the syrup season is getting off to a slow start here, we still have 3 ft of snow in the woods, the only trees really running so far are the ones with a lot of Southern exposure that warms up their trunks and roots. We have processed three pints of syrup, I'm sure the dam will break soon and we'll have more sap than we know what to do with, as usual.
 
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Thank you, perfectly written!! Would that apply to birch sap - asking because sugar maples do not grow in Finland.
 
Rich Rayburn
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Kaarina,
Do a little research, however I do believe that birch trees are able to be tapped along with many other trees that are not maple. I think the biggest difference is the sugar content, I'm pretty sure that Sugar maples have the highest content of all.
 
Jay Angler
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Rich Rayburn wrote:Kaarina,
Do a little research, however I do believe that birch trees are able to be tapped along with many other trees that are not maple. I think the biggest difference is the sugar content, I'm pretty sure that Sugar maples have the highest content of all.

Yes - I've heard of birch syrup, but I recall it having a lower sugar content and a different flavor, but it's considered a specialty item and very pricey!

We have few sugar maples where I am, but we have big leaf maples and again - lower sugar and slightly different taste, but lots of people tap them anyway if they're in the right climate system. It's very marginal where I am.
 
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Kaarina Kreus wrote:Thank you, perfectly written!! Would that apply to birch sap - asking because sugar maples do not grow in Finland.


Some ways to use birch syrup:
 
Kaarina Kreus
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great! I WILL try - birch sap starts runnung in a month or so... it is such a pity sap  needs to be consumed immediately. I haven't got pasteurising equipment.
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I have enough birches 🙂
I have enough birches 🙂
 
Rich Rayburn
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Kaarina,
I am thinking that if you process your Birch sap in a similar manner to that of maple sap, it would keep just like the maple syrup. I believe the shelf life of the syrup depends on the sugar content.  The problem might be keeping a volume of sap from going bad. However you have a wood stove, and if you kept boiling the sap down during the day, and at night keep it either in the refrigerator or in a snowpack, you could continue processing during the day. When we make maple syrup we boil the sap for days at a time, putting it outside at night and just keep adding more sap and keep boiling until we get a sufficient volume for canning. It would be a shame not to be able to enjoy your Birch syrup throughout the year. Even our maple sap will go bad shortly if not kept very cool.
 
Kaarina Kreus
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Oh thank you Rich! Will surely do it. The woodove is still in active use when the sap flows, so   I can keep it simmering. Thank you so much for encouragement!if the syrup turns out not to be sweet enough, I  could always add some honey.  


 
Rich Rayburn
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MAKING MAPLE SUGAR.

I would be remiss if I did not include the process of making maple sugar. Sugar making is probably the most interesting, practical, and creative experience of sugar time. (See photos)
Historically The grove of maple trees was referred to as the Sugar Bush, the building in which the sap was boiled down was called the Sugar Shack, and indeed early gatherings by the pioneers to boil down maple sap was called a Sugar Camp. Sugar was the ultimate goal, as in this form it could last indefinitely in the containers available at that time.

Making maple sugar is done by merely continuing to boil down the syrup, while stirring constantly until it"dries out" so to speak.
For making sugar, you will want:
1. To put the syrup in a pot that is at least four times larger than the volume of syrup.
2.  A large wooden spoon, for stirring the syrup.
3.  The largest mixing bowl available, for stirring the sugar.

If you keep the syrup on the heat, always stirring constantly while the temperature reaches 230 degrees and beyond, the sugar will soon enough foam up vigorously and explosively.  The syrup will start rolling away from the sides of the pan and almost become rope like in appearance, the thermometer is of no use at this point and might as well be taken out. Keep boiling and stirring constantly, when you feel and hear scraping on the sides of the pan it means the syrup is now crystallizing.  Somewhere around this point, a point you can determine only by trial and experience, take the pot off the stove and remove to a cool area, we take hours outside to the porch. You can let the taffy like mass cool somewhat and continue stirring, the steering will get harder and harder, then suddenly and almost miraculously the mass will start lumping up and breaking apart. When the sugar starts breaking up we take it out of the pot,  scrape the pot with our sugar spoon (a large spoon with a flat end) and put it all in the largest mixing bowl we have, a number 14  McCoy!  Continue stirring and breaking up the sugar until it is mostly granular, there will be some lumps that you can sift out as you use the sugar.
You've done it, taken raw maple sap, gone beyond maple syrup to the original goal, an easily storeable, great tasting, and much called for kitchen staple..

We have for several years now provided all of our household sugar, maple syrup, and even some candies as shown in the photos.
The best storage containers for sugar are large glass jars with a secure lid..
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Rich Rayburn
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Well... I thought I'd bump this post back up so we could find out how folks are doing with the maple syrup season this year.
If you've been tapping, and hauling, and boiling, let us all know how things are going.

Also wondering if anyone was adventurous enough to try making maple sugar?

In Minnesota the season is still going (started tapping on March 22nd) , we had some warm weather that produced some rather unusually dark colored sugar, and really slowed the sap flow down. Another run started this week and the syrup and sugar is decidedly much lighter in color, which is the norm.

So far we have produced over eight and a half gallons of sugar and about a gallon and a half of syrup.

Anyone else care to put out an update on their sugar season?
 
Rich Rayburn
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Well thanks to climate change or some such thing, it's maple syrup season in Minnesota a month early.
If any of you folks out there interested, I just thought I'd put this back up.
There's nothing quite like getting 10 gallons of maple sugar for just some exercise and a little firewood.
We started tapping January 31st, we normally start tapping around the end of February or beginning of March.
So far we've put up a couple of gallons of syrup, next we'll begin making sugar!!
 
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One of my great regrets is that I never tapped our Norway Maple before it got sickly and the city cut it down.
 
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