A northeastern tradition

Image_Foraging_Sap-bucket
  • Collecting maple sap and boiling it to make maple sugar and syrup is a North American tradition shared from Indigenous communities. Today, northeastern and Great Lakes states as well as the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec are known for commercial syrup production. Although commercial operations are often large, it's simple to tap a few backyard trees to create syrup to share with family and friends. Sap collection is not permitted on public lands. 

Sugar maple identification

  • A sugar maple branch has 5-lobed leaves The sugar maple has leaves that are usually 5-lobed. The lobes near the base of the leaf tend to be wider and more rounded in shape. The leaves are a dark yellowish green above and a lighter green color on the underside. The sugar maple’s leaves turn yellow, orange or red in the fall. Sugar maples have dark gray bark with furrowed ridges.

    Sugar maples have the highest sugar content of all maples, with an approximate 40:1 water-to-sugar ratio, and are used in commercial production. Black, red and silver maples can be tapped to produce syrup as well, but the sugar content is lower and it will take more sap to make syrup. Box elders, a maple relative, are sometimes tapped for syrup. Maple sap from the Norway maple, a nonnative tree, is milky and can't be made into syrup.

  • Sugar maple information from the Arbor Day Foundation

The process

  • Maple sap is collected in early spring as the fluctuation between freezing and warmer temperatures creates the necessary pressure for sap to flow. For most of Michigan, March is “maple syrup season,” but depending on location, it can begin earlier or later.

    Maple sap drips from a spile into a bucketCollecting sap

    • Trees should be at least 10 inches in diameter before they are tapped. Tapholes are drilled 1.5-3 inches into the tree at a slight downward angle.
    • Current tapping guidelines are to place one tap in trees 12-18 inches in diameter, two taps in trees 19-25 inches in diameter and three taps in trees larger than 25 inches.
    • Once the tapholes are drilled, a spout called a spile is added and a bucket or bag hung to collect the sap. 
    • Sap flow depends on the weather and buckets should be monitored to prevent overflow. During a season, a tree can produce 6-10 gallons of sap. 
    • Sap should be kept cool and processed as soon as possible to prevent spoilage.
    • Sap collection ends when tree buds begin to open. At this time, sap flow slows and sap develops a yellow hue with a bitter taste. 

    Boiling sap for syrup

    • Filter the sap through cheesecloth or a sieve to remove any debris like bark or twigs. 
    • Place the syrup into a wide pan or pot and boil outdoors. As the sap reduces, top off with more. Leave space to prevent foaming over.
    • Monitor the heat as you boil down the sap to avoid scorching the syrup. This is a slow process and will take considerable time.
    • Finished syrup boils at 7.1 degrees higher than the boiling temperature of water, which varies based altitude. A candy thermometer can be used to determine temperature. Sugar content will be 66 percent in finished syrup, which can be measured using a tool called a hydrometer, often found in homebrewing stores. 

    Finishing the syrup

    • Try not to boil the syrup to a concentration further than 66 percent sugar or it will form crystals. Add extra sap to thin if needed.
    • Filter finished syrup to remove sugar sands and any impurities. 
    • Finished syrup should be stored in clean containers and refrigerated. 

Maple syrup facts

    • Michigan usually ranks around 6th in the nation for the amount of syrup produced.
    • Maximum sap flow happens when nighttime temperatures fall below freezing and daytime temperatures rise above freezing.
    • Sap from sugar maple trees is usually about 2 percent sugar; other maples have a lower amount.
    • It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.