In cold climates, starch accumulates in the trunks and roots of different types of maple trees before winter. In the spring, it converts to sugar that rises in the sap. This sap is collected through holes bored into the trunks and heated until much of the water evaporates, leaving the naturally sweet syrup we love.
Step 1: Tree selection. Richard Merrill of Merrill’s Merribee Farms in Elgin, a maple syrup producer and year-round vendor at the Rochester Downtown Farmers Market, suggests selecting a sugar (or hard) maple tree versus a soft maple for tapping. Soft maples have grayish bark while hard maples have black or dark bark. He also advises against tapping a tree less than 12 inches in diameter.
Step 2: Bore tapholes to about a 1-inch depth, drilled upward to facilitate sap flow, then insert the spout. The sap drips downward through the spout directly into the collection container or flows through tubing attached to the spout, as shown here.
Step 3: Covered containers help keep rain and unwanted debris from dropping into the collecting sap.
Step 4: When tapping from multiple trees, a hose system can be set up to direct all the sap to a collection area. A tubing system, like the one pictured here, eliminates the need to manually haul full buckets. Merrill runs about 1,000 feet of hose in his annual collection. If desired, a T-tap approach can be used rather than a single tap/spout. Merrill uses a pump system to centrally collect the sap before transporting it for boiling.
Step 5: Here a wood-stoked burner unit heats the sap, which has been placed in a large rectangular metal pan. It is important to monitor the boiling sap so it doesn’t burn as the syrup forms. Check with a hydrometer as the water evaporates until the density reading is 66°. This “Brix scale measurement” reflects the amount of sugar in the solution.
Step 6: Merrill then removes the hot syrup from the heat source and strains it through layered sheets of felt cloth to remove any naturally occurring crystals or minerals which have formed while boiling the sap.
Step 7: “Foaming” becomes apparent as the hot syrup filters. This foaming can be skimmed off with a long-handled skimmer spoon.
Step 8: Strain a second time to fully clear the syrup; 30-40 gallons of sap yields one gallon of syrup. (It takes a bit more sap from a soft maple than a hard due to the naturally higher water content in the sap of a soft maple.)
Finished syrup is packed in clean, sterile glass jars rather than cans or plastic because cans will rust and syrup stored in plastic has a shorter shelf life.