The Great Bigleaf Maple Syruping Experiment of 2013 has begun.

January 30, 2013 · 41 comments

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First off, we don’t know what we’re doing. Secondly, THIS IS SO MUCH FUN!

A few weeks back, Henry and I were standing around the kitchen, and maybe it was because I’d been reading too much Little House in the Big Woods to the kids or admiring archived posts on Amanda’s blog, but for some reason or another, I turned to Henry and declared that I really wished that we could harvest and produce our own maple syrup. I love to eat maple syrup, but it is so dang expensive that we finally ┬ádecided that it was an extravagance we couldn’t or shouldn’t make room for in our budget. I’d heard rumors about people collecting maple syrup in Oregon, but none of those hints of stories sounded very promising.

Apparently, a couple days after our conversation, Henry was looking online for some discounted beekeeping equipment and found a discounted maple syrup kit instead. After reading this article, he went ahead and made the decision that a couple buckets and spiles would be the perfect (early) birthday present for me, and boy, was he right.

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Traditional maple syrup comes from sugar maples (Acer saccharum), but almost any maple (with the exception of Norway maples that are poisonous) can be tapped. In fact, people have been know to tap birch, walnut, and who knows what else with varying degrees of success. Supposedly, sugar maples have the highest concentration of sugars in the sap and therefore the have the highest yield with slightly lower inputs of energy.

Even though it had been done before, WE had never tapped bigleaf maples (Acer macrophyllum), so the whole prospect seemed pretty intriguing.

Henry scoped out a couple trees in advance, and yesterday afternoon, we went out on a family maple tapping expedition, not really knowing what to expect. The little booklet that came with the equipment said that we would be able to tell after drilling if the tree was a good one because the sap would start to drip out immediately, but you would not believe how surprised and giddy we were when the very first tree we drilled started leaking right away!

We plugged in the spile (a word I just learned when I was reading the second Hunger Games book last week), hung the bucket, and secured the lid. Drip, drip, drip… We were in business.

The second tree we tapped was slightly slower to drip, but we hung a bucket anyway.

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Henry had a hunch that one of the maples all the way down by our pond (about 1/2 mile steeply downhill from our house) would be a good one to try. He was right. The dripping from that spile came out as nearly a steady stream of sap. We looked at each other, realizing instantly that this bucket, the most inconvenient one to get to, was going to need emptying more than once a day if we didn’t want it to overflow. We agreed that we might be crazy.

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Just as it was getting dark about 4 1/2 hours later, I collected a total of 2-ish gallons of sap from the three trees. This morning (about 14 hours later), Henry hauled in another 3+ gallons, but said the bucket on the pond tree was already overflowing when he got there.

Theoretically, it’s supposed to take about 40 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of maple syrup. Before we’d really gotten started, I decided I’d declare the project a success if we got ourselves a quart of our own syrup. Now I’m beginning to see that we may need to scale up that dream in a big way.

Currently, we have my 4-gallon canning pot as well as a 2-gallon stockpot steaming away on top of our woodstove burning full blast. It’s gotta be at least 80┬░ inside our house (with two windows wide open) and crazy humid. I know there must be a more efficient way of doing this, but we’re not ready to build an entire sugaring facility just yet.

Even though, I’d known in theory how hard and energy consumptive this business of maple syruping would be, actually doing it has been pretty eye opening. Lugging just two gallons of sap up the crazy steep hill from the pond left me winded. But even more than the physical effort, the energy inputs are staggering. How many cords of wood will it take, or how many gallons of propane (a fuel I’m reluctant to use for this project)? I generally don’t get too worked up about talk of carbon footprints and “sustainability” because I prefer to practice more than I preach on the subject (and a lot of the talk is just hot air anyway), but I’ve got to admit that this exercise is making me consider such things more than usual. Is it worth it? We’ll see.

That said, I’m getting an awful lot of enjoyment from just standing over the pot, staring and imagining the golden substance that will hopefully emerge in the end. If this really works, I may very well be hooked.

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At this point, the first two gallons have evaporated down to about a quart or so. Somewhere during the process, the sap went from being perfectly clear and very water-like to cloudy and increasingly beige-brown with layer of tiny (mineral?) particles swirling around the bottom of the pot. It seems like we’re right on track, but I have no experience with such things.

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I know a few of you have harvested your own maple syrup before, some more seriously than others, so I guess I’d like to ask if you have any advice for us. What are we doing wrong? What tricks do we need to know? What should we avoid? And what do you like best about this process?

If all goes well (or maybe if it doesn’t), I’ll be sure to post an update with the outcomes and lessons learned.

xoxo Camille

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