Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sugar on the Cheap

Backyard Sugaring on a Hillbilly Budget

Take 40 gallons of sap out of a tree, boil it down until only 1 gallon remains and what you're looking at is $50 worth of maple syrup (2008 retail price per gal).

In this article I'm going to show you how to identify and tap maple trees with equipment that is absolutely free and easy to make.

But first I'd like to impress upon you that taping trees isn't necessarily about improving your pancakes- it's not just about syrup- we're talking about free sugar! Everyone loves sugar and is quick to pick the berries that grow around them, yet they don't think to help themselves to the delicious juice of the maple tree. It's harvested in late winter, when there is nary a berry, or anything else sweet to be had. And to continue with this fruity analogy I'd say sugaring is easier than berry picking because when you walk up to the plant all your goods are already sitting in a container!

Before the sap is boiled it is crystal clear, sweet, and has a refreshing maple flavor and aroma. It makes an awesome beverage without any refinement, cool and sparkling, fresh from the tree. Some trees are sweeter than others. I have a small tree who's sap is sweet enough to make cool-aid without any need to add sugar. It makes great lemon-aid too. Usually, I don't even bother with flavor- I'll put the sap in the fridge and drink it like juice.

To make your sap sweeter simply put it in a pot and boil it down. It's easy to go beyond the point of syrup, but that's okay; who doesn't like maple candy? It looks like a piece of brown beer bottle, but it melts in your mouth and turns into a rich, velvety maple syrup. Put this in a coffee grinder and you have granulated sugar. And oh yeah, once in the crystal form it will never spoil.

As a crude estimate I'll say you can expect a gallon or two of sap per tree, every day. Now that I've psyched you up lets tap some trees!


We are going to:
  1. create some homemade spigots
  2. find a maple tree
  3. drill a hole into the tree, and inch or two deep
  4. plug the hole with a hollow stick we've made (sap will drip out of the end of this stick)
  5. hang a plastic container on the stick to catch the sap
  6. come back to the tree whenever we feel like it to harvest the sap that has collected

Materials and tools
  • Plastic Jugs
  • a drill you can use in the woods
  • a drill bit approximately
  • branch of a sumac tree (see pics)
  • saw to cut sumac branch
  • rod to help hollow sumac branch
  • sharp knife for carving

Homemade Spigots

The most advanced part of this project involves making our own spigots. This will be easy, and they work much better that the metal kind for reasons I will describe at the end of this section.

Do you know what a sumac looks like? It grows in dense groves along highways an has a flower like this in the summer:
This kind with the red bud won't give you a rash. Find a sumac and steal a thumb-wide branch with strait sections suitable for making spigots like those pictured below (a dead branch is ok, so long as it's not rotten).

This sumac branch will have a soft center which can be pushed out. I use a hex wrench to push the pith out. You can see I've sawed the branch into strait sections that are shorter than my hex wrench. I pound the tool through and wallah, I now have a spigot.

The spigot is now (or later) carved so it will fit into the hole we drill in the tree.

These sumac spigots tend to fit into holes more readily than the metal kind, they swell up and don't leak as much, and finally they never get totally stuck in the tree like the metal guys.

So now we just need to find ourselfs a tree!

Identifying Maple in Late Winter

Maybe I should have told you earlier, but sugaring is done only in the late winter. Peak sugar production occurs in this period of lengthening days, when day temperatures are above and night temperature are below freezing. I started sugaring here in Pennsylvania today Febuary the 25th but I probably could have begun a week or more ago.

So how do you know what trees to tap when there are no leaves? Well you can use the old remember from last summer method, or you can look for these hints:

  • maple leaves on the ground
  • any rare remaining leaves are thin, whithered and yellow
  • buds grow in pairs opposite one another (few hardwoods are like this)
  • twigs are slender and branch often
  • bark has no definite pattern and lacks the deep furrows of ash (the other buds opposite tree)
  • sugar maples have variable bumpy-smooth bark
  • red maples have variable smooth to flaky bark and very red buds
  • when drilled clear tasty sap flows out
Where and How to Drill

Any red or sugar maple with a ten inch plus girth is suitable for sugaring. Big trees can handle more than one hole. The hole(s) are drilled at a convenient height on the sunny side of the trunk, avoiding areas above or below scars, big gnarls, or dead areas. Try to tap in a spot that isn't directly below any of the large lower branches.

The hole is drilled horizontally into the tree and soon after penetrating the bark layer you will likely find wet wood, the sap readily dripping out. The hole needn't be very deep, 1.5 or 2 inches, or perhaps deeper if your spigot requires a deeper hole.

Attaching Spigot and Container

The spigot is pounded into the hole. I then make sure the spigot's hole wasn't mashed closed during the pounding, and cut it clear if necessary. Sap will soon be dripping from the spigot. A small hole is cut in the container and the container hung on the spigot. A notch can be cut into the spigot to help hold the container, if necessary.
If the container proves to heavy for the spigot it can be held in place by cordage suspended from a nail. I only find this necessary with very large containers- like 5 gal buckets.
Moths and gnats are attracted to the sap and drown in it so a container with a small hole is desirable.

More on Sugaring

Sugar is awesome, we all love it. Currently you can get it dirt cheap out of corn and third world cane plantations but the former tastes like the industrial product that it is and the later comes from a plantation in the tropics- with all that that implies. Taping trees is unique in that it is the only commercially viable, non-agricultural source of sucrose.


Anonymous said...

how old does a sugar maple tree have to be before you can tap it? i'm going to be given a sapling. how long will it take before it grows enough to tap it? thanks

Nick said...

A ten inch wide trunk is my rule of thumb. Growing in the open it will take 20+ years for your tree to achieve this girth.

Dr. Pete said...

How late in the year can you tap? We have had plenty of rain in Missouri this year; I have two huge, old maples available; and I understand that the tree's leaves make sugary sap all through the warm season...

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