Maple Syrup: New Producers and Hobbyists

A chance for first time sugarer to learn the basics.
Maple Syrup: New Producers and Hobbyists - Articles

Updated: August 8, 2017

Maple Syrup: New Producers and Hobbyists

General Overview

Maple sugaring can be very enjoyable; however, it is labor intensive, especially for the small scale producer or hobbyist because the equipment is smaller. If a hobbyist has access to healthy, tappable sugar maple trees, the first consideration is the ability and time to evaporate the sap to finished syrup. You must be honest with yourself about the amount of time you not only have available but are willing to spend evaporating. The syrup will run when the weather is right, not when it is most suitable to you. You may have numerous good runs during a one or two month sugaring season. Unless you pull the taps early or dump some runs, you will have to process them all. Sap can only be stored for a limited period of time before spoilage. Spoilage occurs faster during good runs because the weather is warm (usually 40 degrees or more). Sap is essentially a light sugar solution that is wonderful microbe food. If you work on a farm, in your own business, or can work your schedule around good runs, then sugaring may be for you. Many dairy producers and farmers are also sugarers because this works well with their schedule.

Getting Your Feet Wet

Alternative 1

Hobby maple syrup operations can vary greatly in size. For a producer that taps 10 trees or less, a pair of very large cooking pots may be sufficient to handle your evaporation. This method is slow and is best suited to someone that wants to learn about sugaring. Remember that 10 trees may make 20 gallons of sap in a good run and unless you have really big pots (apple butter or butcher kettles) or alot of time, production may be slow. A flat evaporating pan, which larger operations would us as a "finishing pan," will substantially increase your rate of evaporation in pots. These pans can be purchased new or used from a sugaring equipment supplier or manufactured by a sheet metal worker. A hobbyist should try a small-scale operation for at least a year before considering the large investment necessary to start even a small sugaring business.

Alternative 2

If you live in a maple sugaring area, you may be able to tap trees and sell the sap to a neighboring producer. A producer that wants to increase production may be willing to buy sap instead of adding taps. The purchase price will be low (in the range of $0.10 to $0.70 per gallon); however, you can develop a good collection network and perfect this end of the business prior to investing in evaporation equipment.

Sugaring season may start as early as late-January. The primary trigger for good sap flow is warm days and freezing cold nights. Either ask your local Extension Agent or the Maple Syrup Team about the progress of the tapping season. Starting early in the season is usually good for sap quality and quantity but can be very frustrating when continuing cold conditions leave you for days with little or no sap.

Tree Selection

For the hobbyist, several types of maples can be tapped: sugar, black, red, silver or Norway. Sugar and black maples are the best; however, red maples are also used to some extent commerically. Select trees with large canopies with trunks greater than 31 inches in circumference (10 inches diameter). Avoid trees that are not vigorous or that have large defects. These trees will produce low sugar content sap and may be excessively stressed by tapping.

Tapping

Sugar producers use a 7/16 inch drill bit to tap trees. The holes are usually bored to a depth of about 2 1/2 inches and at a slightly upward angle so that the tap drains well. Care should be taken not to "round out" the hole. Traditional guideline suggest that tap holes be six inches to the side or twenty four inches above or below unhealed tap holes. Tap holes will be healed in 2 or 3 years. Be cautious of clustering tap holes in subsequent seasons. Traditional guidelines allow up to four taps in big trees; however, conservative tapping allows only 2 taps even on very large trees. Producers currently follow both guideline. Large trees with fewer taps tend to produce more sap per tap than when more taps are used, so the decision on which set of guidelines to follow is complicated. Both traditional and conservative tapping guidelines are included in the table below.

Traditional and conservative tapping guidelines for sugar
# of TapsTraditional Guidelines Tree DiameterConservative Guidelines Tree Diameter
110-15 inches12-18 inches
215-20 incheslarger than 18 inches
320-25 inchesNO
4larger than 25 inchesNO

Spouts

After the hole is formed, a "spile" or "spout" is added. Many Types of spiles are available, if buckets are to be used for collection. In years past, hollowed elderberry stems were favored for tapping; however, these spiles will not usually fit tightly in the tap, may damage the tree or can even be a source of infection. Commercially available spiles are a much better alternative. These spiles should be cleaned in a 1 to 20 bleach to water solution and rinsed several times. Cleanliness is very important to tree health and sap quality. When deciding on spile type, the decision on what type of bucket to use is also important. Spiles are usually made to service a particular type of bucket. If everyday plastic buckets are used (such as used food-grade buckets often available for free at bakeries or restaurants), spiles with hooks may be a good alternative. If commercial buckets are used, spiles should be suited to the bucket. Spile should be tapped into the tap hole gently enough to avoid tree damage (putting a split in the trunk), but firmly enough to seat the spile. Remember that the spile will have to hold the weight of up to 2 gallons of sap in a good run. Check the tap and then attach the buckets to the tap or the tree.

Buckets

Buckets can be purchased new or used. A hobbyist will often skimp in the area. Indeed, new buckets can be expensive; however, used buckets may go for $2.00 or less. If used buckets are considered, avoid any with rust or other damage. Clean all buckets with a 1 to 20 bleach to water solution and rinse several times. Lids should also be used if possible. Lids limit contamination and dilution by rain, snow, birds, etc. Lids can be fabricated or bought for somewhat less than the cost of buckets.

Collection

Sap, even in cold weather, should not be left in buckets for more than two days. Microbial actions will result in spoiled sap. This will have to be discarded. If sap spoils, the bucket should be cleaned if possible. Use the 1 to 20 bleach to water solution.

When collecting sap, it is important to remember that sap is heavy. During a good flow, even ten trees will produce 160 pounds or more of sap. Sap will have to be transported from the trees to a storage tank. A five gallon plastic bucket is often the best mode of transportation to the storage tank. For small operations, the buckets can be carried to the storage tank (large sterile garbage cans) near the evaporator and dumped. For larger operations, some other transportation will be needed.

Transportation

Sledge with attached tanks are often the choice for smaller producers. Producers usually improvise these tanks. Once again, it is important to remember that these sleds are not kids toys. Sap is heavy and some form of traction animal or equipment will be needed. Poorly built sledges will be dangerous. The production of 100 taps can be 3/4 of a ton. Horses, ATV's, trucks or tractors will be essential. You will have to have some road system in your sugarbush if equipment is to be used. Large amounts of sap are heavy and will sink into wet forest soil. Roads will have to be able to handle frequent travel during wet winter conditions. Your machinery will have to be able to function with a heavy load in snow and mud. In addition, your equipment must limit damage to your road.

Storage Tanks

Bigger operations require big storage tanks. For the hobbyist, sterilized plastic garbage cans are sufficient. You can determine how much storage space you will need by allowing two gallons per tap. For example, if you have fifteen taps, a thirty gallon garbage can is sufficient most of the time. If commercial tanks are used, the massive weight of the sap must be considered. Significant thought should be given to the support of these tanks. A 250 gallon tank will weigh almost a ton with a full load of sap. A ton will require more support thank two 2x4's.

Evaporators

The hobbyist can use several approaches to evaporating their sap. In general, evaporation should be done outside unless only 2 or 3 trees are tapped. Four to six gallons of moisture will be liberated in boiling the production of these two or three trees in a good run. Fromm personal experience with finishing syrup indoors as a obbyist, your house will be more humid than it has ever been. After you start boiling, all the windows will fog in 30 minutes. In an hour, the walls will be wet and you will have some difficulty breathing. So, evaporate outdoors.

For a hobbyist, your arch can be an old stove or an improvised fireplace. Your evaporator can be some big pots or a flat pan (often used as finishing pans). These flat pans can be purchased from a sugaring supply shop of fabricated. Using two evaporator pans/pots is usually faster and results in better syrups. The first pan (the largest) is used to boil the sap to do most of the evaporation. After most of the water is removed, the concentrated sap can be transferred to the smaller pot for "finishing." Large scale producers use an evaporator with "back" flue pans and "front" flat pans for this same purpose. Large evaporators do not usually make sense until a producer has at least 50 taps.

Arch

The arch is the structure used to support the evaporator and to supply heat. For the hobbyist can be an old stove or an improvised fireplace. The easiest wood-fired each to build consists of four or eight concrete blocks and a smoke stack. Dig a shallow pit underneath where the pan will be and place the blocks in a manner to support the evaporator or sap kettle. A smoke stack aids in drawing the smoke and in heat efficiency. A general rule is that the stack should be twice as tall as the pan is long. Fill your pan with sap and start the fire inder it. Fill your "finishing pan" with sap an start it cooking. Transfer concentrated sap from the sap pan to the finishing pan as needed. Because sap will not burn easily, the fire can be quite hot. Nearly finished syrup will burn if not watched. Using this two pot system is much better than using single pot. If a single pot is used, new sap will constantly be added to the concentrated sap. The sap that was added first will constantly be cooked fron the beginning to the end of this process. This extended period of cooking results in a dark syrup that may taste burnt if the cooking requires a very long time. Using two pans allows one to concentrate the sap and then most of the sap is transferred and replaced by unprocessed sap. The finished unit brings the syrup to appropriate density.

Density

Finished syrup is 66% sugar. This is when the syrup is 7.1 degrees F above the boiling point of water or when the hydrometer reads 66 degrees Brix. A candy thermometer can be mounted in the finishing unit with a clap or piece of wire.

The temperature where the sap begins to boil is roughly the boiling point of water. The boiling point of water varies with barometric pressure, so it can be different every day. When the syrup is at the correct density, transfer the syrup to heat sterilized bottles or canning jars. Filtration of the syrup is a good idea at this point. As the sap is cooked, a substance called sugarsand precipitates. While it will precipitate to the bottom of the jar in storage, the sugarsand can be filtered for a better syrup presentation (imagine pouring out some gritty sugarsand onto a pancake). If the product is to be sold, filtration is essential. The syrup has be at least 180 degrees F when canning to remain untainted in storage. Remember to use hot bottles if possible, as the temperature of the bottles affects the temperature of they syrup. Cap the bottle and turn then over to sterize the lids.

Storage

Allows the jars or bottles to cool completely before storage. If the hot bottles are placed close together before they cool, they continue to cook. If this occurs, the product darkens. This darkening is called "stackburn".

Conclusions

So now you have tapped some trees, collected, evaporated, filtered, canned, cooled and stored your syrup. You did this for a year or two and you still like it. You can stay at this level and make enough syrup for yourself, some gifts and maybe a bit to sell or you may want to expand your operation.

Where do you go next?

The next step is to become a small-scale producer.

Authors

Bioenergy Agroforestry Forest Economics and Finance International Forestry Forest Extension Non Timber Forest Products

More by Michael Jacobson, Ph.D.