Monday, March 11, 2013

Tapping trees

'X' marks the spot!
This weekend, we finally got around to tapping our maple trees! Everyone helped out, and it was really a family affair. The weather is perfect for collecting sap: warm days that range from the low 40s to the high 50s in temperature, and nights that drop below freezing. Last summer, I had marked out the various maples with spray paint so I could easily identify them come winter. However, I allowed the girl child to help me out, and it seems that some non-maples got marked. This resulted in us tapping a couple of oaks and then removing the taps when we realized my error!

Helping daddy tap
The tapping process is not very complex, and can be done quiet cheaply. The spiles (the metal taps that go into the tree) are only a few cents for the cheap ones that hold buckets, or as high as $0.29 for the small metal ones we got, that accept the blue maple sap tubing. The tubing itself cost us just under $5.00 for 30 feet of it, which was more than enough for the few trees we tapped. My original plan had been to allow our taps to drip into sterilized milk jugs through a small hole in the plastic cap, via the tubing. However, I quickly learned that wasn't going to suffice . . .

Drilling the hole
The first thing you want to do once you've found your maple tree(s) is to drill a hole in them, at an upward angle. We used small spiles, and so we had a 5/16" drill bit. You can get hand drills that allow you to do this without power, but we figured we'd enjoy the power tools while we could. The drill made it very quick and easy, and you could immediately see the sap beginning to drip out of the hole. Using a hammer, you tap the spile into the hole, then hold your breath for a moment. When you see the drip-drip-dripping of the sap through the spile, you hang your bucket or attach your tubing and put a container at the other end.

More than one tap is fine on large trees
If you have large trees, you can easily put in more than one tap. In general, you would put one tap into a tree that is 53 inches or less in circumference, two into a tree that is between 53 and 75 inches in circumference, and over 75 inches in circumference can accept three taps. For very large trees,  you can go with four or five without problem, but beginners should stick to no more than three per tree until they are more experienced.

Tubing leads to a jug
The sap will drip slowly out of the tree and either off the spile and into its bucket, or down the tubing and into the collection container, so long as the sun is out and the temperature is above freezing. The warmer the day, the better the sap will run. The perfect weather for tapping is a 40-50F day and a 25F night, which will produce the freeze-thaw cycle that keeps the sap flowing for a very long time. We're heading into just such a cycle for the next couple of weeks, and we're hoping to get enough sap to make syrup for the year, plus a little bit of maple sugar as well.

Adding a second tap
If you put your taps in on a warm afternoon, as we did, you'll be immediately rewarded with the sight of flowing sap. You can actually stand and watch it come down the tubing at an astonishingly fast rate. Let the kids taste a bit of the sap, dipped out of the container, to see what it's like. There's nothing wrong with the sap, and in fact it can be used to make a very flavorful tea (use the sap instead of water).

Sap dripping out of the spile
There's something exciting about being able to do this simple thing. It's not exactly easy, per se, because it takes man-hours to tap, collect, boil and store the sap and syrup, but there's nothing complex about how it's done. You can use the sweet results of your labor with knowledge that there is no high fructose corn syrup hiding in it, and there are no artificial sweeteners, colors, or preservatives. It's just plain, delicious maple syrup.

Adding a 'Y'
My original plan for using the milk jugs as collection places turned out to be a bit underwhelming for most of our trees. Rather than have a bucket hanging on each spile, as in pioneer days, we used the blue tubing and 'Y' splitters to bring all the sap into a single place. For the tiny trees that had only a single tap in them, that was more than adequate, and a single gallon milk jug seems to be what they are going to give us in a day. That's not true of the larger trees, however.

A spile, close up
The two large trees had four taps and three taps in them, all collecting down into a single place. In one hour, we had almost filled the gallon jug! This just wasn't going to do, and so we sacrificed three of our large five gallon buckets to be used for collection. A small hole was drilled in the lid of each bucket, allowing the blue tubing to enter but hopefully no bark or insects. We put the taps in around noon yesterday, and at noon today they had about 2.5 gallons in each of the large pails and about 3/4 of a gallon in each of the small jugs.

Close-up of a milk jug lid with tubing
I will admit, I wasn't expecting to get quite that much the first time. Admittedly the weather is ideal, but still, this is my first time being the driving force behind tapping maple trees. Previously, an acquaintance had been in charge, and we had used the old-style spiles and hanging buckets. It was so exciting to see the huge amount of sap there when I went to collect!

A small jug
The fun part starts when you get the sap boiled down, but that will be a while. You can save sap to boil in very large batches, but considering we're a home-sized operation, I just boil it about half way each day as it comes in. The house smells intensely of maple syrup, and it's so wonderful! Right now I'm boiling indoors, which is NOT recommended, because you end up with sugar coated walls. However, I have the windows open and the fan on, and so I am hoping to avoid the worst of the sugar coating.

Also, I am not finishing the sap into syrup today. I will boil down each day's take until it's just barely starting to thicken up. It will still be clear and watery, but if you taste it, it'll bear more resemblance to the syrup than the sap. That half-finished product will get popped into the freezer until later on in the spring, when we've run out of freezer space. Then we'll pull out all the half-done sap and put it onto an outdoor burner to finish up. It's important to do that last bit outside, as that's when the most sugar comes off the sap. We use a propane burner at full heat, and make short work of it. The longest part really is getting that first half of the water out!

Sap that's out of the tree will last for 3 days if left in the bucket outdoors, however it's best to bring it in and start processing it once a day if at all possible. The half-boiled down sap can be safely frozen for several weeks, but should not be stored at room temperature or outdoors where it will freeze and thaw.

Finished maple syrup can be canned and stored for over a year on the shelf without worry, and can be frozen for an indefinite period of time. Honestly, I wonder who would want to test out how long it takes for maple syrup to go bad. I know I don't! I've never had a batch of syrup last more than a couple of months, never mind the year they say is safe!

As I process my sap into syrup, I'll add information to the blog for everyone to enjoy. Please share your own sap and syrup stories with us!

Shared at the Backyard Farming Connection Hop #23! This post was shared at the Homestead Barn Hop #103!

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