How to tap trees and make maple syrup

A maple tree tapped for making syrup By brm/Shutterstock

Got any maple trees at the cottage? Although red and silver maples will yield syrup, sugar maples are preferable for their higher sugar content and superior flavour. They are most easily identified by their leaves, which have five lobes and smooth, rather than serrated, edges. Because it’s easy to get species confused when the branches are bare, it’s best to identify and mark your trees in advance.

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A several-day thaw on the heels of freezing weather will trigger the sap flow. Southern and eastern Ontario cottage country usually experience the flow in mid- to late February, while for Parry Sound-Muskoka it’s mid-March. In the Sudbury-Manitoulin region, it’s usually the last week of March. The earliest run yields the lightest-coloured (and generally believed to be the finest) syrup, and the sap will flow best on warm, sunny days that have been preceded by a sub-zero night.

Here’s what you need

  • a carpenter’s brace, or electric drill, and 7/16″ bit
  • spiles
  • a hammer
  • pails
  • a large pan (a sizable baking pan will do the trick)
  • a filter
  • a candy thermometer
  • an outdoor heat source (a simple fireplace can be built on the ground using cement blocks, or you can do it all on a camping stove, but plan on using lots of fuel)

Here’s what you do

1. Choose large, healthy maples, at least 30 cm in diameter.

2. Drill your holes at chest height, on a slight downward angle so that the sap drains out of the tree and into your pail, and make sure to drill no deeper than five centimetres. Tap the spile firmly into place, but not too tight or the bark may split.

3. Hang your sap-collecting pails on the spiles. You can use recycled plastic jugs, or purchase used aluminum sap buckets.

4. Sap should be boiled while it is cool and fresh. If stored for too long, bacterial contamination may occur. Ideally, once you’ve given it a rough filtering with cheesecloth or a sieve, you will boil the sap the day you collect it, or the following day. We store our sap in large plastic garbage cans (sterilized beforehand), heaping snow around them for refrigeration.

5. Don’t fill your pan to the brim with sap–fill it about five centimetres deep, and keep adding sap as the level decreases. To keep a continuous boil, it’s a good idea to pre-heat the sap you are adding. We heat ours in a large pot placed on the coals of our outdoor fire, but this could also be accomplished on a camping stove or woodstove. Skim the froth away as you boil.

6. When the sap darkens and approaches a syrupy consistency, start monitoring the temperature closely with a candy thermometer. When the temperature reaches a point four degrees above the boiling point of water, you’ve got syrup!

7. Pour the syrup through a filter into a holding container (we use a stainless-steel tank at a Manitoulin sugar shack, but a pot will do the trick). Commercially available synthetic felt filters are optimum (to ensure clarity, consider lining these with paper cone filters), but you might get away with cheesecloth and paper towel.

This article was originally published in the March 2004 issue of Cottage Life.


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