Matt Carter, Associate Farm Manager, shares his take on sugaring:
“How much sap you got this year?” Isn’t that the question? Or at least it was on Maine Maple Sunday. For many syrup producers, the answer this year was perhaps a tad on the lighter side. With a two-day sap run in January, and another brief spurt in February, those boy scouts of the maple world were able to cash in early. For the rest of us, we had to wait till… April?! Well, almost.
As you probably know, maple sap runs under certain conditions. The tree’s natural sugars are stored up in the roots during the winter, and when temperatures reach above freezing during the day, and return to below freezing at night, that sweet sap makes a run for it, climbing through the sapwood, to awaken the tree to the coming spring. That all comes to an end once the tree buds, when the sap flavor becomes “buddy” and is no longer suitable for making syrup.
During this brief window that can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, this precious commodity can be collected by drilling a shallow hole (about an 1 ½” deep) and lightly hammering in a tap or spile to channel the sap outward to the awaiting method of collection, whether that’s a galvanized bucket, a stretch of blue poly tubing gradually descending to a stainless steel tank, or a rinsed out cider jug. Just be sure to filter the sap. You’ll see why after you’ve collected for a bit.
A popular misconception is that you can only make maple syrup from the sap of the Sugar Maple, but in fact it is rather the frequently higher sugar content that makes this the preferred species for maple production, followed by the Red Maple. The sugar concentration of maple sap is somewhere between 1%-5%. For those botany geeks out there (and every farm should have at least one), you can tap any tree in the Acer genus, which also includes the Box Elder, although we don’t see many of those in Maine.
In order to make syrup, you have to boil away the water content of the sap, thus concentrating the sugars. During a good sap run you can expect an average of about 1 gallon of sap per tap per day. A good rule of thumb is it takes 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup (or 2 ½ gallons to make a cup if you’re sugar bush only has one tree). Do the math and you quickly realize you have to boil off a lot of water to get to that magic 66 Brix (% sugar) that produces Grade A maple syrup. But every year people show up in droves to maple producers throughout the state to prove it’s worth it.
So go visit your local sugarhouse. Or if, like my young family, you decided to tap some trees in your own back yard and try your hand at sugaring this season, perhaps on top of your woodstove, turkey fryer, or kitchen range, I’ll bet you too have discovered quite a sweet surprise (or maybe a lack there of).