As a kid growing up in Minneapolis, I remember early spring as that time of year when the days were longer, the snow was disappearing, and I was allowed to play outside again all day long. The most fun was getting the huge pack of neighborhood kids organized for softball games, to play “kick the can,” or just ride around on our bikes. With all of these options, it didn’t take much effort to get me outside; in fact it was much more difficult to get me back indoors at the end of the day.
As time went by, that wonderful, playful era passed and I grew up, went to college, joined the ranks of the corporate world, got married, bought a house in the suburbs, and became a serious-minded adult. I retreated to the indoors during the cold months and when the snow receded in the spring, I looked out my window and only saw was an ugly, dirty yard awaiting attention – the kind that I just didn’t want to give it
But the spring-embracing child in me re-emerged after my husband and I moved to our farm in 2000 and a friend of ours who grew up in Vermont took note of all of our sugar maple trees. He gave us a tour of our own property, pointed them out, and asked: “Have you ever thought about tapping these trees?”
We decided to give it a try. The first year we put out 35 taps, and constructed a primitive outdoor cooking station. We discovered it was really fun, so the next year put out 100 taps and made some upgrades to the cooker. We were hooked and made the plunge, expanding a little more each year. The next year it was 200 taps -- built a sugar house -- installed a maple syrup evaporator. Then 400 taps -- 500 taps -- more improvements. And now our operation is even certified organic.
For us, the sugaring season begins the first week of March. We organize a pack of neighbors – spanning three generations – to put out the 500 taps, tubes, buckets, and lids. We have a special drill bit that is specifically for tree tapping. My husband goes from tree-to-tree, identifying the sugar maples, then drills a hole, wipes the bit clean with an alcohol-soaked rag before going on to the next tree to ensure that no diseases are spread. Behind him, someone is ready with a tap with tube already attached, and gently raps it in place with a small hammer. The next person comes along with a five-gallon bucket and lid, tucks the tube into the lid hole and securely snaps it shut.
On our farm, we only tap the sugar maple trees because they have the highest sugar content in the sap. But all varieties of maple trees can be tapped: red maple, silver maple, even box elder which are also members of the maple family.
The taps need to be installed just before the sap begins to run, and that is completely dependent on the weather. The conditions need to be right: nights below freezing and days that are warm. Why? The sap needs to be moving in the tree in order for it to drip through the taps. Freezing nights stops the flow, warm days gets it going again. The wrong combination -- warm nights and warm days or cold nights and cold days -- will prevent this process from happening. And it is because of these very specific weather requirements that maple syrup is exclusively made in North America.
When the weather is cooperating, sap is collected every one to three days. And let me tell you, there is no greater joy than tromping through the muddy woods on a beautiful spring day to find the buckets full of pure, crystal clear, pristine maple sap. Bucket-by-bucket, the collecting tank is filled and hauled back to the sugar house to be cooked in our wood-burning maple syrup evaporator. The sap is boiled for several hours, evaporating most of the water to concentrate the sap into luscious, pure maple syrup.
Maple sap has a sugar content of about 2.5 percent and pure maple syrup has a sugar content of about 66 percent. In simple terms, it means that a whole lot of water needs to be boiled off in order to concentrate the sap in syrup. It takes 30 to 40 gallons of sap – depending on the variety of maple trees – to produce one gallon of maple syrup. The plumes of steam billowing out of the chimney as the sap is cooked is quite a sight to behold.
While the length of time the sap flows varies each year, it typically lasts about three to four weeks. On our farm in East Central Minnesota, the sap flow is usually from mid-March to mid-April. When the trees start to bud, the chemistry of the sap changes taking on a disagreeable odor, color, and taste. This is known as “buddy sap” and it is the indicator that the sugaring season has officially ended.
When the taps are pulled, the holes have already dried up and begun to heal. Just like your skin, the tap hole will leave a scar on the tree. When we return next year to tap again, we will find the scar and use it as a map, moving around the trunk to tap in a different spot. Over the years, the tree grows adding more rings to its girth so by the time we work around the tree back to that general area the same area on the tree can be tapped once again.
Making maple syrup is more than just producing a scrumptious treat. It is an experience that brings together people of all generations to enjoy the great outdoors and celebrate the winter thaw. Lifting buckets, hiking in the forest, splitting wood, and staying up late to cook sap is a lot of work. But the effort is easily surpassed by the pleasure of being outside playing all day until you’re completely exhausted, knowing you get to do it again the next day. For me, making pure maple syrup, is pure childhood joy.
(Photo credits: Mitch Kezar, Kezar Photography)
Debbie Morrison grew up in Minneapolis and spent more than 20 years as a marketing strategist for ad agencies in the Twin Cities. Now, she and her husband own and operate Sapsucker Farms, where their certified organic crops include maple syrup, honey, apples, plums and vegetables. Debbie's last post for Simple, Good and Tasty was Do Honeybees Fly South for the Winter?