On the morning of the Full Snow Moon, February 5th, I went to go for a walk in our woods and Will asked me to check the maple sap buckets. We tapped 12 trees with stainless steel spiles the week before, when the conditions were supposed to be perfect but the weather changed… go figure!
As I go to check the first bucket, I see the 2 gallon container almost overflowing! We found that was the case with all 12 of our taps and we quickly grabbed our biggest pot… our canning pot, which is just 5 gallons. We soon realized we needed more space to store the sap otherwise it would spoil. So we grabbed our biggest cooler, which is 20 gallons and filled it up as our back stock and stored it in our concrete chilly basement. We had a propane stove set up outside and realized it was going to take a very long time to boil down.
For those of you that don’t know; it takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup! Our goal was to make 3 gallons of syrup to sustain our quart a month needs, so we definitely wanted to make sure we didn’t let any sap go to waste. Maple sap needs to be treated like milk otherwise it will spoil. If it is cloudy and yellow it can add a sour flavor to your final product, which we definitely don’t want. At this time we actually ran out of clean water in the house (working on installing a softener for our well water) so we used maple sap to make our coffee and tea. It is full of good minerals and electrolytes and tastes delicious with its clean, crisp sweet flavor.
This is when our commUNITY shows up for us, we reached out to our neighbors and friends for pots and extra burners. We definitely weren’t prepared for such a large quantity of sap. We read that a tree can produce a gallon a day on a good day and we got 2 gallons in one day and they were quickly filling up after emptying the buckets! We felt overwhelmed, but so dedicated to make the best with what we had. Our neighbor let us borrow his 8 gallon pot with a spigot and another friend brought over extra 5 gallon pots that they use for canning along with a 2 burner propane burner, which was a big help!
Throughout the night we were boiling and setting alarms every 3 hours to check on the sap and make sure nothing was burning. It seemed similar to what having a newborn would be like! We were able to notice that in our pot setup it was evaporating 1 gallon per hour.
The next day our neighbor, Pete, came by to check on us and helped us clean the propane stove to get a better burn. He taught us that the flame on a propane burner should be blue, not orange, otherwise your propane is not burning efficiently which means you have build up that needs to be cleaned, which is also why the pots were getting so black. We used wire brushes and an air compressor to clean it up and got it back up and running.
At this point we had TWO coolers full of sap and full 8 gallon and 2 5 gallon pots boiling. We were expecting to get more sap in the morning so we didn’t want to get too backed up. I been searching for places to buy big stainless steel pots and I finally came to the idea of going to the local brew store, which is 40 minutes away, but was so worth it. I picked up a 16 gallon pot and a spigot to support our production.
The boiling process:
Every time that we set up the sap to boil we would switch into smaller pots as the contents evaporated and use a nut milk bag to strain it. We tried using a cheesecloth, but it was not as good at getting the sediment out of the sap as the nut milk bag, there are official maple syrup filters, but the nut milk bag worked just fine for us. It is best to strain every time that you switch vessels because sugar sand, called niter, is a sediment that forms as the sugars boil, so be sured to definitely strain right before bottling. It is okay if there is some, it is inevitable and it will sink to the bottom. For every batch, I would try to calculate based on the ratio of 40:1 how much syrup we would be getting so I would know when to start checking the temperature. It is recommended to keep the boiling temperature with a candy thermometer. It will not go higher until it is ready to turn into syrup which is 7.5 degrees above boiling, so for us, 219 degrees Farenheiht. Once it reaches temp, I let it boil for about 1 minute and then turn off the heat and bottle it in sterilized jars at when the syrup goes down to 206 degrees. This helps ensure the jar will seal. I tried bottling at 190 degrees which another source recommended, but it was the only batch that had trouble with sealing. We put the unsealed ones in the fridge and use them first.
Sterilizing and Sealing Jars:
For those of you that are familiar with canning and sterilizing, you know how the hot waterbacth goes. Since you don’t have to water-bath can the syrup, yes they are just hot packed- so much easier, it is cumbersome to have to set up the hot water bath just for sterilization. I did some research on alternative ways to sterilize and the oven method is what I chose to do. Wash the jars with hot water and soap, rinse, but don’t dry! Put the jars facedown on a roasting pan lined with a sheet of parchment paper in the oven at 275 degrees for 10 minutes. Place the clean lids in boiling water for 5 minutes.
On maple syrup color:
We realized that the color is different and darker when you add maple sap slowly during the boiling process rather than putting it all in the pot at once. I think it has to do with the caramelization of the sugars in the sap that gets boiled longer. The maple flavor is deeper. The lighter one, considered Amber, is lighter and more floral and not as sweet as the darker one. I read that the first sap that comes out of the tree is typically Amber, Grade A. We did experience the lightest batch as our first one. As we continued to collect we noticed darker syrup even if we did just boil down a small batch.
What we will do differently next year:
While having the propane stoves going overnight was helpful for our overload of sap, it is definitely not ideal or recommended. It could be a safety hazard and is expensive, we've spent $70+ on propane... We plan to switch to firewood, which will be more sustainable and also make our process more connected to nature and our woods. We also plan to use an evaporator pan to speed up the process, instead of using pots. The larger surface area of evaporator pans is what makes such a difference. For a more DIY version, we could also use stainless steel catering trays and mount them over cinderblocks on the fire, which we have seen some people set up like that. We will see what route we end up going next year. Overall, is has been so rewarding to source our own sugar source right outside out front door. The smell of buttery maple syrup is worth every moment of lost sleep.