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Evaporating sap and making maple syrup

Evaporator boils down the sap

The trees are tapped and the sap is flowing. Finally its time to turn those gallons of sap into delicious maple syrup! If you have not already read part 1 and part 2 of this series you may want to go back and do that first. In this post I’ll cover the evaporating process and finishing and bottling maple syrup.

Evaporating the sap

By far the most time intensive part of maple sugaring is the evaporating. Sap is 98% water, give or take, so depending on your setup you can spend many dozens of hours and an obscene amount of wood getting the sap boiled down to syrup. The last two years I hodgepodged together a cinder block evaporator. It worked, but was terribly inefficient and a bit dangerous. This year I had plans to build my own steel box evaporator and lucked out when a local welder offered to sell me his own at a great price.

Wood-burning firebox

The firebox holds a tremendous amount of wood and the stainless steel pan can hold up to 15 gallons of sap at a time, although it is more efficient to boil a shallow than deep pan.

The goal is to keep a roiling boil for hours on end. Because it takes so much wood and takes so long to get everything heated up, I usually wait until I have 20 gallons of sap collected before evaporating.

Sap vigorously boiling on the evaporator

The time required varies greatly by the weather. Colder, windy days take longer than calm, sunny ones. Next year I’ll make better use of firebrick and concrete blocks to insulate the steel from the wind and focus as much heat as possible to the bottom of the pan.

While the sap is boiling I have a second pan warming sap on the edge of the evaporator. Pouring cold sap into a boiling pan would kill the boil and slow down the evaporating. So everything you can do to pre-heat the sap saves time in the end.

Warming pan warms up the sap before being added into the main pan

As the sap boils impurities foam up to the surface. Every so often I use a strainer to scoop off the foam.

Straining foam out of the sap

That’s pretty much all there is to it. Feed the fire, add sap, strain. Repeat. The evaporating is done when the sap is reduced to a dark brown color and the sap/syrup is thickening. It’s usually pretty obvious when the consistency of the sap has changed.

Sap is reduced and ready for finishing

Because the final stages of evaporating need to be tightly controlled, most people will “finish” the sap indoors on a standard range.

My new evaporator has a nifty drain spout. To get the sap/syrup out all I need to do is turn the spigot.

Draining the syrup out of a spout on the evaporator pan

Finishing the sap

The final stage of making maple syrup involves getting the syrup to the right consistency. There are a couple of ways to do this. You can either measure the buoyancy with a hydrometer or use a candy thermometer to measure the boiling temperature. The boiling pot has to be watched closely because once the sap turns to syrup it can boil over quickly. I lose lots of syrup this way every year, despite my best efforts.

I like to boil at a medium-high heat taking periodic measurements with the hydrometer.

Hydrometer measures the density of syrup

Periodic checks using the hydrometer ensures the exact right density

Measuring 32 baume on the hydrometer means the syrup is done

After ladling syrup into the cylinder container, I drop the hydrometer in and it floats to the measured density. A reading of 32 Baume (or 66 Brix)—the red line—means the syrup is done. Alternately, a candy thermometer reading of 7.1 degrees above the boiling point of water (219.1 for most of us) is considered finished syrup.  It’s important that the measurements be accurate, otherwise the syrup may be too weak and not store well or be too dense and crystalize. That’s why finishing inside on a controlled stovetop is preferred.

Filtering and bottling the syrup

Now the syrup is complete and ready to bottle. First the syrup needs to be filtered. Some people use cheesecloth, but I prefer a dish towel folded in half (used only for maple syrup). In my experience cheesecloth is too porous and allows too many particulates through.

Filtering the finished syrup

I can usually filter 2-3 pints at a time into a 2-quart bowl. Then I pour into pre-sterlized canning jars and screw on the lids.

Pouring filtered maple syrup into jars

Syrup does not need to be sterilized in a water bath like other canning products. As long as the containers are sterile the boiled and filtered syrup will remain extremely hot for a very long time and create a tight seal as they cool down. Tip: screw the lids down as tight as possible, then the next morning screw them a little tighter, if you can. I’ve had some jars lose their seal days or weeks later, presumably because the lids were not as tight after everything cooled down.

When you do open a sealed jar, it has to stay in the refrigerator from that point on. Pure maple syrup is different from the brown-dyed corn syrup you find in the grocery store and will spoil if not refrigerated after opening. Properly sealed syrup will last at least one year, but likely won’t make it that long once you have a taste for it.

Last step: cook up some pancakes and enjoy.

Enjoy your pure maple syrup with pancakes and a good cup of coffee.

 


How to tap a tree

Drill about 2 inches deep

In my previous post, I discussed the basics of getting started with your own maple sugaring operation. In this post, I wanted to show the step-by-step process of tapping trees and collecting sap.

The tradition of tapping trees for syrup and sugar dates back to before the first settlers arrived. It was Native Americans who discovered that trees could be tapped for sugar. They originated the techniques of using wooden spiles to drain sap from trees and dropping heated rocks into troughs to boil off the water. Native Americans taught their techniques to the Pilgrims and early settlers as they arrived. Reportedly, maple syrup was on the menu at the first Thanksgiving in 1621.

Wooden spiles were used  by Native Americans to draw sap from maple trees (Courtesy of osv.org)

Wooden spiles were used by Native Americans to draw sap from maple trees (Courtesy of osv.org)

After 400 years, the process hasn’t changed much. We now use steel vats and power drills but the basic method of poking holes in trees, inserting a spout, collecting the sap and boiling it down is the same.

Drilling and Tapping

The first step after you have identified a tree is to drill the hole. It doesn’t matter much how high off the ground you tap, except that you will have the most sap flowing from the trunk of the tree upward. I always try to place the tap about waist high. Some people say to tap on the South side because its sunny. Others say to tap on the North side because “the pressure builds up there”, whatever that means. I have never noticed a difference in any of the sides. I always try to guess where the tree needs the most sap and place the tap there. For example, if the trunk splits I drill under the healthier of the trunks. But honestly I can’t say that’s a guarantee either.

When you drill the hole, angle the drill slightly upward (but not too steep or the sack won’t hang correctly), and drill about 2 inches deep.

Angle of drill should be slightly below horizontal

Drill bit and spout used for tapping trees

A piece of tape wrapped around the drill bit lets you know how deep to drill.

Hole drilled

Next set the spout in place and hammer in. It needs to hold over 30 pounds, so be sure to tap it in far enough.

Hammer in the spout to tap the tree

Spout tapped into tree

Hanging the buckets (or sacks)

Next step is to add your sap sacks. I like using sacks instead of buckets because they hold a ton of sap (4 gallons) and don’t take up any storage space. The assembly is simple: the bag is wrapped around an inner rim piece, then the rim is slid into the holder.

Sap sak is hung on the spout to collect sap

Assembling sap sak

Finally the sack is hung on the spout.

Hang the sap sak on the spout

Make sure the sap is flowing where its supposed to.

Sap dripping from tapped tree

Collecting the sap

After the trees are tapped and the bags are hung, it’s time to wait. It can take take several days for the bags to fill with sap.

Bag is filling with maple sap

If the temperature drops, the sap may stop flowing altogether. If the days are warm and sunny, you might encounter a “run”, where a significant amount of sap is collected over a short period. This year it took about 2 weeks to collect the first 40 gallons of sap, but the next 50 gallons were collected in 2 days! The trick is not to be gone on vacation during a sap run.

Collecting sap from the bags

Once a day I check all my taps and pour off any bags that are over half full. I store up the five-gallon buckets in our garage until I have enough to spend a day evaporating (usually 20 gallons).

Emptying sacks into buckets to store

Sap runs always seem to catch me off guard and I find myself running to the hardware store to buy extra buckets. But eventually the season comes to an abrupt end and all that running around and hauling buckets is done, until next year.

This year we were in the middle of a run, and we had run out of buckets. We had 60 gallons stored and no time to evaporate. Then I happened to taste the sap from one of the trees and could tell it was changing flavor. I went to all the other trees and tasted the same difference. It was “buddy” sap, a slightly earthy (some say bitter) flavor. I went back to the house and told Becca our storage dilemma was solved—the season was over. As abruptly as it started, the maple sugaring season had ended.

That covers tree tapping and sap collection. In my final post I will show how to use an evaporator to boil down all those gallons of sap into sweet, pure maple syrup.

 


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