What comes to mind when you think of Vermont? If you thought of maple syrup, then you're not alone!
Vermont might be the second least populous state and sixth smallest state in the US, but in 2020 it produced over 50% of the country's maple syrup - a staggering 2.2 million gallons!
While several species of maple can be tapped to make syrup, it's the sugar maple (aka hard maple) that works bet. On our property, we're lucky to have lots of sugar maples, so we decided to try a little experiment to make our very own maple syrup.
Disclaimer: we are not professional maple syrup makers, and this is just an account of our small-scale (but successful!) experiment to make maple syrup for the first time.
Maple Tree Tapping
The process to make maple syrup starts with collecting sap from maple trees. Each year, some time around March as the nights are below freezing but daytime highs creep up to around 40°F or more, sap will begin to climb up through the maple tree trunks.
This sap is the sole ingredient of pure maple syrup, but it needs to be distilled down. The sap is mainly water with about 1-2% sugar whereas maple syrup must be 66-69% sugar, so it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make just 1 gallon of syrup.
There are multiple ways to collect this sap - from simple buckets to expensive vacuum pumping systems. But whatever method you choose, the first step is to install a spile.
For our first experiment, rather than using all 10, we chose to tap just 2 trees. We drilled a hole in each tree per the instructions, installed the spile, and the attached a length of the included plastic tubing which we ran down into a food-grade 5-gallon bucket we picked up from Tractor Supply.
Then we waited. And waited.
Weather conditions weren't great, but after a week or so we had collected about a gallon of sap - checking the buckets each day and transferring any sap into a container in our fridge, filtering each batch as we went.
You can't leave sap sitting around too long, so we decided to boil down what we had (more on that in a moment!) but after another week or so we had collected two more gallons. Time to make syrup!
In a normal recipe, you add ingredients together to make the final product. Maple syrup is a little different. There's only one ingredient, maple sap, and instead of adding something we need to take something away - water! A lot of water!
Based on the 40:1 reduction ratio, our 3 gallons of sap would result in barely 10oz of finished maple syrup, meaning we needed to evaporate almost 3 gallons of water!
It is highly recommended not to try doing this in your kitchen. The steam and water vapor is almost pure water, but trace amounts of sugar and other dissolved solids will ensure every surface in your kitchen turns sticky.
Living in an RV, this was definitely a no-go for us, so we decided to build a simple firepit using concrete blocks on which to suspend two 6 inch deep evporating pans. The design was based on images we found online.
Top tip: make sure your firepit is level because you're going to be suspending a pan of liquid on it!
We lit a fire in the firepit using wood we had felled, cut and split last year. It's only had 6 months over winter to dry so it's not completely dry yet, but it's dry enough to burn (especially in an outside campfire) and soon we had a hot fire!
Even though we were only boiling down about 2 gallons of sap (in addition to the 1 gallon we had done earlier), it still took several hours to evaporate away most of the liquid. Once the level drops, you'll see the color change from clear to amber.
Once there was sufficiently little liquid left for it to fit in a regular pan, we decanted it and brought it inside to finish, filtering it to remove any solids.
Making maple syrup is a very temperature-sensitive operation. Fractions of a degree can be the difference between perfect syrup and an inferior product that will crystallize or worse.
Therefore, rather than boiling all the liquid off on the firepit, we brought it inside to our gas stove where we could control the process more precisely.
We used a candy thermometer to carefully monitor the temperature, but the pros use a hygrometer or even refractometer to dial in the perfect sugar content that the strict maple syrup guidelines demand.
The temperature will vary slightly depending on environmental conditions, but we were aiming at right around 217°F.
Keeping a very close eye on the thermometer, we brought the syrup to the perfect temperature, then removed it from the heat. Once it had cooled to about 190°F, we filtered it once more and poured it into bottles.
Actually, as a test, we filtered into one bottle and kept a smaller bottle unfiltered - there's no impact on taste, just aesthetics, and you can clearly see the difference.
In the end, we produced about 5oz of finished maple syrup, less than the 10oz that our rough math had indicated, but that's OK - on such a small quantity, losses in filtering and moving from one container to another are significant. And we probably just sampled a little too much along the way!
But it's 5oz of pure, homemade maple syrup. Made from sap we collected from taps we installed on our own trees on our own land. Boiled down on a firepit that we built over a campfire that we created from logs we split and cut from trees we felled last year.
We had some for breakfast yesterday morning on pancakes (made with fresh, local eggs from our neighbors) and it tasted amazing!
This whole process exemplifies how we like to operate - have an idea to try, undertake a small scale experiment to see if it works, and then invest more if it was successful.
So will we be making more maple syrup in future?
Yes! While we have no desire to get into large scale or commercial sugaring, we'd like to tap more trees and make more maple syrup next year. At the very least, I think we'll plan to use all 10 spiles from our kit (yes, they're reusable year-to-year, and the tree heals up very quickly after you remove it at the end of the season).
If you have some sugar maples and haven't tried making your own maple syrup before, give it a go! It's a fun process and the finished product tastes so good!
Leave us a comment and let us know what you think and if you have any tips for us for next year!