The Great Bigleaf Maple Syruping Experiment of 2013 has begun.

January 30, 2013 · 40 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  decided 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

{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

Kimberley January 30, 2013 at 10:37 pm

This is totally awesome. I hope it’s a success!

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Camille January 31, 2013 at 9:37 pm

Well, we have a little over a cup of finished syrup in the fridge, so I’m prepared to call it a success right now.

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Katharina January 30, 2013 at 11:23 pm

I’m sure you’ve informed yourself about how it might affect the trees. Would you share your knowledge? I’m curious!

The first two sentences made me laugh out loud, because it is just how me and my boyfriend start gardening and that stuff as well.

: ) Thanks for sharing!

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Camille January 31, 2013 at 9:38 pm

From what I understand, drilling trees and harvesting sap does not adversely affect the trees. In fact, people who do this for a living often tap the same trees for decades.

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Rachel January 31, 2013 at 12:07 am

I guess there’s a reason that stuff is so stinking expensive! I’m really impressed that it’s possible to make maple syrup around here, though!

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Camille January 31, 2013 at 9:39 pm

You should try it, Rachel. It’s fun!

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Kathy January 31, 2013 at 3:30 am

This post is exciting! This is exactly how we got into gardening…one POT of tomatoes and one of peppers… to now having a basement full of home canned produce. Not only do we have a huge garden as well as a community plot, but also became CSA members. I feel like I should say, BEWARE. But that just makes me chuckle!
Living minutes from Vermont, I am sure that there are lots of folks doing just what you are doing. Seems like every maple tree is tapped as one drives through in the spring. I am looking forward to hearing how it all goes. I’ll place my bet now that you think it is totally worth it, but that this will be the last time you make it in the house. I do hear over and over that it is a labor intensive product.
On a side note, I had a nephew attending Oregon State and he had spent quite a bit of time working for a large area farm. He was here this past weekend and I happened to mention that I had been reading this blog and that you had been working for a large farm in that area. He asked your name and I wish you could have seen his face! I am a 64 year old woman, while he is 29 and here we were somehow involved in exactly the same thing on different coasts! We had a lovely, long conversation. I have no idea how I found you…one blog leads to another and some stick. I do know that most of the original posts I read were about goats and I was fascinated and have been here ever since. I had been to his graduation and to Portland, to the Corvalis Farmers’ Market so felt connected somehow. You remind me of how his parents and I lived when we were young and raising our children. You renew my faith that there will always be those in each generation who will care about family, food and sustainability. The four of us…his parents and we…raised six young adults who care about quality of life and are willing to work hard to live well. We worry about greed and how it seems to be driving the way many live and think. You were a lovely link between the generations. Isn’t this just a great world?

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Camille January 31, 2013 at 9:40 pm

Wait, what’s your nephew’s name? Do I know him? If so, that’s pretty darn cool.

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Kathy February 2, 2013 at 2:37 am

His name is Ben Morelli and I think he said that he worked with harvesting seed. Your position on the farm made you quite visible and he mentioned that you took great photographs even before I showed him your blog. He is back on the East Coast looking for grad schools.

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Abby January 31, 2013 at 6:17 am

Thanks for sharing! You take such beautiful photos.

My family has been harvesting maple syrup for over twenty years, thanks to my dad’s persistence and passion for the project. He started like you, boiling sap on the stove, and gradually he worked up to using a secondhand evaporator. About seven years ago he finally built a small sugarhouse in the backyard, complete with a bigger evaporator over gas burners. As far as I know, he didn’t expect it to get this big, but we all fell in love with the project. I have such great memories of helping him drill tap holes in the trees, of my first-grade class visiting our house on a field trip to see how tapping and evaporating worked.

From what you’ve described, it sounds like you’re doing everything just right. The mineral deposits are natural, and when you feel that your syrup is close to finished (you can also test the amount of sugar with a refractometer–see http://maple.dnr.cornell.edu/kids/refractometer.htm for more), you can filter them out through a cheesecloth or wool filter.

My only other recommendation would be to make sure to watch the weather very carefully. In Ohio, where I grew up, we boiled until the first crocuses sprouted. That usually meant that the sap would turn buddy, and the syrup would come out ropy. The sap will start to turn once you haven’t had a freeze for a while.

I’m excited that you’re trying this! I don’t tap myself, since I rent an apartment, but I hope that I’ll be able to eventually. And feel free to contact me if you have any questions. Good luck!

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Camille January 31, 2013 at 9:42 pm

This is great advice. Thank you! I hope my kids have similarly good memories when they’re all grown up.

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Sasha January 31, 2013 at 6:56 am

Very cool! I’m excited to follow along on this maple-tapping adventure :) Your comment about the sap becoming cloudy/brown as it condensed got my inner environmental chemist thinking – It’s probably the precipitating out of salts, minerals and other nutrients as water evaporates and the sugar becomes more concentrated. Good luck with this!! :D

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Camille January 31, 2013 at 9:44 pm

I read somewhere that the precipitating little bits are actually saltpeter, which launched Henry into a big discussion/research project on black powder and other ridiculous things.

You’re from the Northeast, right, Sasha? Do you have any maple syruping experience?

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Denise January 31, 2013 at 8:53 am

Love this post. I would really get a kick out of doing this. LOVE! Cannot wait to hear how the syrup turns out!!

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Camille January 31, 2013 at 9:45 pm

I’ll be blogging about it soonish, but let me tell you, the stuff tastes fantastic!

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Pamela Kolbas January 31, 2013 at 9:27 am

I will be keeping an eager eye on this project of yours. I wondered if this was possible last year, but when I poked around a little for info I thought our lack of Sugar Maples here in the NW put it out of the question. Now my hope is renewed! And even better that I can hear from you how it turns out before trying it myself :)

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Camille January 31, 2013 at 9:46 pm

There are some sugar maples growing around here, but I think maple syrup is mostly a Northeast thing because of the climate conditions. I think it works better if the nights are colder. We’re having pretty good success, though.

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michelle January 31, 2013 at 10:59 am

This is not a comment on the maple-tapping (although that’s super cool). I just had to share how your blog helped me yesterday. I’m just a random person who lives in Los Angeles who reads your blog because I find bee keeping FASCINATING, and yesterday, as I was dropping my three-year-old off at preschool, I saw bees! SWARMING! And because I read your blog, I was able to reassure the parents that were around that swarming bees are really docile and that no one needed to panic. And then I helped the school administration find a company that would come relocate the feral bees after they stopped swarming and found a new place to settle. So thank you! It was AMAZING to be so close to a swarm — magical, really — and I was so glad I was able to educate the other parents and help them not freak out. :)

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Camille January 31, 2013 at 9:47 pm

This story makes me really, really happy.

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Kristina January 31, 2013 at 12:50 pm

I’m doing this for the first time this year and this gorgeous post has me totally psyched! Fantastic photos, I can’t wait to see the finished product!

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Camille January 31, 2013 at 9:47 pm

I’m pretty psyched, too!

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Eve Geisler January 31, 2013 at 1:36 pm

We did this for many years when our kids were little and I do have a few tips, some of which were learned the hard way. It is best to do the boiling outside, as sticky condensation will eventually get on every surface. We used a propane burner. We used a roaster for boiling as it had a larger evaporation area.
One year we forgot about our syrup and it burned to nothing but a charred mess at the bottom of the roaster, so I HIGHLY recommend using a timer to remind you of the syrup. That year, I lied to my kids and bought replacement syrup. I didn’t confess for a long time. My son made the same mistake when he was a teenager, though I nagged him about the timer, he said he wouldn’t be as absent minded as me. lol.
We froze our syrup for storage, it can get mouldy so something has to be done for long term storage, maybe canning in your situation?
Drinking slightly boiled down syrup can become addictive for kids. We called it maple tea. I ran a home daycare for years and maple syrup season was a highlight!
Good luck!

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Camille January 31, 2013 at 9:50 pm

Boiling indoors hasn’t been nearly as unpleasant as I’ve been warned about so far. We’ve been leaving a couple windows wide open, and we have yet to experience sticky condensation (though maybe if/when we do, that will be the motivation we need to move outside). I’ve got a chest freezer over at my parents’ house, so if we get enough that we need to consider storing it for the long-term, that’s no problem.

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Deb January 31, 2013 at 2:59 pm

So cool! Love it! I hope your try at this is successful and you get some great Maple syrup to enjoy with your family.

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cinnamon gurl January 31, 2013 at 6:33 pm

We tapped a few Norway maples last year (they aren’t poisonous where I am in Ontario, Canada but they don’t have as much sugar so you have to boil more) and didn’t get much syrup because it was a very odd season. I discovered that you have to store the sap carefully (in cold temperatures) if you’re not going to boil it down right away (I was waiting to collect a bunch), especially if the days are warm. The sap will go off and it tastes AWFUL. We had several 20C days in March that cut the season very short and boy can you taste it in the sap when the buds start. I now have a fantasy of getting a farm with a maple bush. Especially if I could sustainably use wood from the same bush to boil the sap down… then for just a little effort I could have so much golden goodness.

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Camille January 31, 2013 at 9:52 pm

We’ve just been boiling the sap right away and not trying to store it, but we’ve never had a huge quantity at once.

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Laura January 31, 2013 at 6:42 pm

Super (productive!) winter fun-we have made a gallon or two of syrup for the last several years. My 2 cents-I second the comment that discouraged cooking it off inside. We cobbled together a cinder block burner that holds a stainless food service steam table tray…complete with stove pipe…used mud to seal up cracks. It is fired with pine scraps/slabs from having saw milling done. I’m sure you’ve come across the trick about lifting any ice that forms on the sap, it being just water?

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Camille January 31, 2013 at 9:53 pm

Since we just started dabbling in this department, we don’t have an outdoor facility set up, but if things work out well, we may have to put something together. It hasn’t been cold enough at night to freeze any sap, so we’re just boiling and boiling.

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Sherry Reuter January 31, 2013 at 9:22 pm

Hi Camille! I’ve been following your blog for a few months now and usually spend a few moments drooling over your permaculture greenhouse. I moved to Oregon from Wisconsin and have also thought about tapping the big leaf maples here. I’m so excited for you! I’ve tapped sugar maples in northern Wisconsin. We had what looked like a cinder block raised bed that had a large pan over it (about 3×6?) and a fire was set beneath it. They had to keep the fire going day and night and slept outside in the winter, surrounded by snow. In the morning, we had maple syrup and maple sugar candy pressed into maple leaf shaped molds. I can’t wait to hear about your results in your already successful experiment!

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Camille January 31, 2013 at 9:54 pm

I’ve got to do a little more research about maple sugar. It sounds awesome.

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Sherry Reuter February 13, 2013 at 6:50 pm

I see you have about a precious quart of syrup now! To get the sugar, you just keep boiling and stirring. Maybe next year?! :) -Sherry

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Mary Jo February 1, 2013 at 5:16 am

We steamed up our cabin making maple syrup in southern Ohio while our kids were growing up. I simply canned the boiling syrup in sterile hot Ball jars and it kept well. We alsways used up one years supply before the next batch so I am not sure how long the shelf life would be. When the kids were school aged we moved to Geauga County Ohio which is well known for its maple syrup production. The towns tap all of the maples on the streets and The Maple Festival in Chardon is a yearly highlight. Walking home from school the kids could stop at the sugar shack on the town square and buy maple stir for fifty cents. Syrup was heated to 235 degress and poured into a little paper bowl, cooled for a few minutes minutes and given to the kids with a tongue depressor to stir. A couple of minutes of stirring yeilded creamy maple candy, a rich and local treat. You will have lots of happy syrup memories!

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Tonia February 1, 2013 at 12:06 pm

This is so exciting!! I’m thrilled that this worked for you! Welcome to the world of sugaring. :)

It’s fascinating to see this process being done somewhere so GREEN and rainforesty, because I’m so used to seeing it done in more traditional environments (WI, MN, VT, Canada…) My family has made syrup on a rather large scale (tapping anywhere from 350-1500 trees depending on the year and using draft horses to pull a sled through the woods with a big tank on it for collecting) for 25 years in Northern WI. I’ve posted about our operation on my blog: http://www.ittybittyimpact.com/tag/maple-syrup/

We usually tap in early March, or as soon as the daytime temps are warm enough to prompt the trees to run but the nighttime temps are still dipping below freeing. The early-season syrup is very light, in taste and in color…almost the color of honey. Mid-season gives you that perfect amber syrup, and late-season gives you thick, dark syrup. Each version is delicious in their own way. We know the season’s over when we start seeing moths or other bugs in the sap pails. The sap will also begin to have a yellow-ish tint in the pails/taste sour.

Possibly one of the most important things to know: if you accidentally over-cook a batch, you can just keep on cooking it until it becomes maple sugar! Or pour the thick, cooked-down syrup over snow and it becomes maple taffy. YUM.

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Tonia February 1, 2013 at 12:10 pm

I would also add that soil comp make a huge difference in taste. We tap Sugar Maples and have a nice sandy loam at our sugarbush, and the result is buttery, velvety syrup. I have friends in NH who tap Sugar Maples, but their syrup lacks the buttery aspect. They actually ADD butter to their syrup to try and achieve that flavor.

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elisa February 11, 2013 at 10:25 pm

this is absolutely amazing and exciting. i’m just up from you in vancouver, canada — watching what you’re doing with tremendous curiousity. i’d love to try this, how wonderful. the vivid images of maple sugaring in ‘little house’ have stuck with us too. i must dig out a wonderful home movie i came across, of writing with syrup in the snow…then cracking it and eating it! x

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sandra leckie March 18, 2013 at 6:58 pm

Hello Camille
Stumbled upon your site and it is now bookmarked. May I suggest you check out a blog called Tall Clover Farm. I think you’d like Tom’s writing. Anyway, also was going to suggest you search for “boiling maple syrup with rocket stove”. All those cords of wood blasting off BTU’s had me questioning making maple syrup but if these babies can do the trick then I say “tap it”. Thanks for your inspirational site.
sincerely, sandra

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Barbara January 5, 2014 at 9:48 pm

Loved your January 31st post of trying to get maple syrup. Yesterday, I had to cut a few limbs on a big leaf maple on my property and it started to drip like crazy. Being that I also loved Little House in the Big Woods, I stuck a bowl under it and let it drip. I collected about a cup or so before the temperature dropped into the 30′s. I then looked on the internet to see if it was even possible to get maple syrup on the West coast. I tried boiling it, but when it boiled down to 1/4 cup I had to stop or loose all my “syrup”. (Only got to the cloudy stage.) My sister directed me to your blog. So fun to read your pictures and descriptions. Maybe I should tap it and see what more I can get! Now that it is a year later, are you tapping again this year?

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Suzanne March 9, 2014 at 2:16 pm

I think that I have to dump my batch of syrup. I left it outside for a while and it smells a bit like wine. Should I just dump it? This was my first time on a couple of large Big Leaf Maples in Brentwood Bay BC Canada on Vancouver Island. maybe next year I’ll get it right.
Thanks for all the great information that you have shared.

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Camille March 9, 2014 at 8:17 pm

Anything that smells fermented probably isn’t good. Try not to store sap for very long before boiling, especially on warmer days.

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Suzanne March 9, 2014 at 8:32 pm

It was a learning experience. We have had some cold weather, but not enough to justify me leaving it out there for so long. Maybe I will get some more this week and I will boil it the same day I get it. Next year will be better.

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