On the sandy banks of Ayers Brook in Randolph, VT (the geographical center of the state), there’s a piece of land with my name on it – my name, and six mature Acer saccharum. Those less inclined to memorize epithets in a long-dead language know these as Sugar Maples, the paragon of Vermont trees. Plenty of other trees adorn the property: a looming Prunus serotina, two lightning-torn Populus balsamifera, a desperate Betula papyrifera, one stately Betula alleghaniensis, and a smattering of Acer negundo.
Set those other trees aside for the season. Sugaring will soon be upon us; indeed, some veteran sugarmakers are already tapping their trees. Every Vermonter (and a few of us flatlanders, too) knows that the best sugar and the highest yield comes only from Acer saccharum. Curious to know if small-scale sugaring is possible without an evaporator, I spoke with Sterling’s resident woodchuck, Leonard Evans, about the steps I would have to take to tap my own maples.
Lenny says that tree selection is an important first step for successful sugaring. Any trees tapped for sugar should be at least 12” DBH – that is the diameter of the tree 1.4 meters (4.6 feet) up from the ground. (You can get this measurement by measuring the circumference of the tree at that height and then dividing that number by pi. Pi equals roughly 3.14.) I measured my six maples, and they range from 18.6” DBH to 30.1” DBH. Trees between 12” and 18” DBH can have one tap (spile). Trees larger than 18” DBH can have two taps. You never want to put more than two taps in a tree – remember, sugar is made from sap, and trees need sap to survive.
Young trees have a higher sugar content, but older trees make up for that with the volume of sap output they produce. Vermonters historically tap trees on Town Meeting Day (tomorrow!), because temps are usually above freezing. Never tap a frozen tree – your work will be for naught as the taps will fall out, and you will lose sap. It’s also much harder on the tree.
Preferring to tap under a large branch on the south side of the tree, Leonard says this helps increase the flow of sap. He uses a wood bit on a corded or cordless power drill, stating, “the tree-safe kind are a waste of money and do not work as well.” Drill at an upward angle (resulting in a downward angled spile) so the sap comes out easily, and only drill in 2” to put in the spile.
The steel and aluminum taps (purchased at most hardware stores in the area) are specially designed to accommodate a hanging bucket. Five-gallon buckets can be used, or the fancy sugaring buckets, as long as all spiles and pails have been thoroughly washed. Containers to hold the boiled-down Vermont Grade A will also need to be clean, of course. Lenny suggests investing in a sap line tap with hosing to send the sap directly into a jug on the ground, since this is such a small-scale experiment.
Sap only flows on warm days without wind using these methods, but it’s healthier for the tree. Be sure to check your buckets at least once daily when the sap runs. When you start getting a decent amount of sap, it’s time to make syrup!
Without an evaporator (one of those huge metal drums used to boil down the sap), it is entirely possible to boil on ye olde cook stove or wood stove using stock pots. As the sap boils down, keep adding in more until your thermometer reads 219 deg. F – then “check the syrup to make sure it sheets like honey.” When this happens, that pot of syrup is ready to be bottled.
Since most of us who don’t own a considerable sugarbush don’t have the iconic, taupe, plastic syrup jugs just lying around, it is perfectly acceptable to bottle your finished syrup in mason jars. As with any type of canning, make sure the jars and lids are disinfected first through boiling water. Bottle when the syrup is 180 deg. F (use gloves and remember that quick-heated glass is more likely to break, so preheating the bottle may be a good idea). Seal the lids on tight and flip the jars for a better seal.
After six weeks (mid-April), the trees will be tapped out. Sap collected at this time is sour and yellowish, a side effect of bacterial growth within the spile. Pull the spiles, clean them and the buckets, and give them a nice home in your basement or shed for the next eleven months. Taps that are unremoved will be swallowed by new growth rings on the tree, so make sure you rescue them every year or lose them forever.
To keep your trees healthy and ensure many more years of delicious liquid gold, do not fill in the tap holes. The tree will do this on its own, just like we do when our skin gets a hole in it. Filling them in will trap pathogens, potentially killing the tree. The next time you tap your trees, tap 6” to the right or left of the previous year’s scar and 12” up or down.
Done right, a healthy tree will yield about ten gallons of sap – which boils down to only a quart of syrup. With six mature trees (and one 30”+ DBH monster), I can expect 1.5 to 2 gallons of finished syrup, just enough for gifts to family and topping on blueberry pancakes or banana waffles.
Written by Heather Cullen.