Making Maple Syrup In The City

A picture book comes alive when one family decides to make maple syrup in their own backyard.

by Matt Fowler
PHOTO: Susy Morris/Flickr

Oftentimes, we have a preconceived notion about what is possible or even typical. We tend to gravitate toward the normative controls that make our life more uniform and easier. That said, we must recognize the opportunities that exist or develop around us, as these will influence our perception as to what is possible.

So what happens when a family reads a 1957 Newbery Medal winning book like “Miracles on Maple Hill” by Virginia Sorenson? This book is a wonderfully delightful, slow transition for the reader back to a time when old-fashioned values and methods were the norm. The book was not only a wonderful book for our family to read aloud, but it was also a book that spawned an interest in the book’s subject matter: making maple syrup.

How do you tell a small child that we can’t make maple syrup when they have heard about the process every night from a book that kept them spellbound? How do you tell them that they live in the middle of town (between 5th and 6th Streets, to be exact) and that people in the middle of town don’t have a sugar shack? In my experience you just can’t. Especially, when you have three old maple trees around your house that have never provided any benefit to your wellbeing, but instead have annually filled your gutters with whirlybirds.

Who cares that we were in the middle of town! Who cares that we had never considered the idea in the past! Who cares that we had never made maple syrup or even knew anyone that had! Everyone in the family cared and cared deeply about this prospective project. The kids were beyond excited as we planned to acquire the needed supplies. The neighbors were intrigued by the possibility as they had old maple trees, as well. The community, as they walked by the house, reminisced of their love for real maple syrup and their desire to try some of our first batch.

We just had to give it a go, and we found the production of maple syrup to be a fairly simple operation for a family to undertake. A great resource for us as we entertained the idea of producing our own maple syrup was “Maple Syrup Production for the Beginner” by Anni L. Davenport. This easy-to-read six-page paper from the School of Forest Resources at Pennsylvania State University does a great job explaining the types and sizes of maple trees you can tap, as well as the placement and spacing of the taps on the trees. Additionally, we found there to be very little equipment needed to make several small batches of maple syrup over the course of about six weeks.

Equipment Needed

  • cordless drill with a 7/16 drill bit
  • metal spout (aka, spile) for each hole drilled
  • collection container to hang from each spile
  • lid or cover for each collection container (keeps rainwater, squirrels and a myriad other things out of your sap)
  • large container to store the sap you collect (food-grade 5-gallon buckets work great)
  • large pan with a heat source, like a turkey fryer kit from your local farm store
  • thermometer calibrated to the nearest degree (some candy thermometers will work, but I would recommend a
  • digital thermometer)
  • supply of cheesecloth
  • open-mouth filter

Our experience producing maple syrup was fascinating and a relatively inexpensive venture. We found sets of buckets, lids and spiles for sale on ebay for about $7 each. Our initial purchase of a few units was reasonable and was within the bounds of what we thought we could manage on a daily basis.

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Tapping Your Maple Trees

Please note, once you tap your maple trees, the flow of sap will start almost immediately and will continue as the temperature fluctuates from below freezing at night to above the freezing point during the day. You will want to plan ahead and make sure you have some way to store the sap you are collecting. When tapping your trees you will want to drill a hole about 2½ inches into the trunk of the tree about 4 to 5 feet off the ground. Your spile can be pushed, or gently tapped, into the hole and the bucket hung from the hanger attached to your spile. It is not uncommon for a tree to provide a few gallons of sap each day. The sap, much to our surprise was a completely clear liquid with just a hint of sweetness.

Making Maple Syrup

It was shocking to know that it takes about 40 gallons of sap to produce a single gallon of syrup. Essentially, you’re boiling the water off and retaining that 2 to 4 percent sugar content in the sap. This can be accomplished through a gas-fired, wood-fired or electric system.

I chose to use a turkey fryer to boil about 4 gallons of sap at a time. Just remember that surface area is your friend when trying to remove the water. You will want to bring the sap to a boil and let it continue to boil as the water evaporates. Once this 4 gallons of sap had cooked down to about 1/2 gallon, I removed it from the big pan and took it into the kitchen, placing it in a smaller pan to finish.

Finishing Your Syrup

The higher the sugar concentration in any sugar solution, the higher the temperature at which the sugar solution will boil. It is unnecessary to stir the liquid during the finishing process, but keep an eye on the temperature. When your sap reaches a temperature that is 7.1 degrees above the temperature of boiling water—easy to check this when you first start boiling the 4 gallons of sap—you’re ready to pour your sap into a jar through several layers of cheesecloth to filter out any particulate matter. If you started with 4 gallons of sap you should finish with about 3/4 pint of pure amber goodness.

In our experience, the production of maple syrup allowed a book to come alive. It allowed our family to take on a project that combined skills oriented learning, the liberal arts and real world experience while expanding what was possible in an urban homestead.

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