Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Too early to tap trees?

            Three wise-looking, majestic maple trees grace our front yard. Last February, my husband came home unexpectedly with tap kits; that evening he affixed them to the trees and, complete neophytes, we waited for the magic to happen.

            Unsurprisingly, it didn’t. We had no idea what climactic conditions were necessary for obtaining good maple sugar, how often to harvest it, or even what to do when we did. That spring, I happened to visit an acquaintance’s maple sugaring operation, which spanned thousands of acres in Vermont’s Green Mountains and consisted of several million sugar taps. He had them connected to a rubber piping system, all leading down to a sugar shack of his own construction which held several thousand-gallon tanks churning and boiling.

            I may have been just a tad bit intimidated. This looked difficult, to say the least.

            By the time I took the buckets off my own trees that year, I had a few inches’ vaguely sticky mass of yuck at the bottom in which a few flies and bees had been fossilized. Sugaring fail.

This year I did my research. Turns out, there is no exact science to maple sugaring; good harvesters seem to divine it in almost a shaman-ish sort of way. I mentioned in an earlier post that my lilac was budding up; the same phenomenon in your maple is a good sign that the sap is rising.

Before tapping, the tree needs to be above freezing—that is, you need four days or so of 40 degree weather. A sugarer I spoke with actually waits for small buds to form on the branches to prove the tree is, again, alive.  As I understand it, during winter, the tree’s cells store its food source in a starch form; when the tree gets its springtime cues it liquidates that food into sugar form as a growth jumpstart. Once temperatures are higher (consistently above 45 degrees) the tree converts that food source back into starch for slower consumption. The takeaway from this? Get it while the getting is good. Once you recognize the necessary signs and weather conditions for your trees, you should tap immediately and then enjoy 4-6 weeks of production in a normal year.

This, however, doesn’t seem to be a normal year.  After hearing a story on North Country Public Radio (my lifeline: see the article on Early Adirondack Sugarers ) on early tapping going on in the Adirondacks due to elevated yearly temperatures, I decided to just bite the bullet and tap my trees.

It is surprisingly easy. I had a hammer, an electric drill gun, a 7/16 drill bit, and the standard maple sugar kit from the hardware store. I chose a spot at my level (apparently vertical level doesn’t matter, but you should drill at least six inches away from a previous drill site) and drilled at about a 60 degree angle upward into the tree (to catch downward sap flow) as far as I could, moving the drill in a circular motion to enlarge the hole enough to fit the tap. I withdrew the drill and waited a minute; sure enough, a clear, thick sap came flowing out of the hole. I stuck the tap in as far as I could, then used a hammer to knock it in as far as it could go. I used some spare PlayDoh (all I had was orange) to putty around the tap so that sap couldn’t escape (I’m sure other more durable materials would work for this). I then attached the bucket and waited for that sweet, satisfying drip… drip… drip… on the bucket floor. Mission accomplished.

Apparently, one must treat the raw syrup as a dairy product: don’t leave it out too long. Collecting every other day seems to be optimal. Store it in the fridge until boiling. Expect a volume ratio of 40 (raw sap) to 1 (maple syrup).  Additionally, one is supposed to boil the syrup outside and for many, many hours over a wood fire because it is so messy.
            I am wondering (a) how I will have time to stand outside boiling syrup for multiple hours and then (b) why I actually care as we don’t ever eat maple syrup.

            The answer to (b) is easy: it’s the principle of the thing, damn it.

            Stay tuned for the answer to (a).


  1. I went out to check the buckets today, bringing a large mason jar to pour off collections and refrigerate them. The first bucket I peeked into was three-quarters FULL. Um, guess the mason jar was a gross underestimation. The second bucket? Half full. I might just have more maple syrup than I bargained for.

  2. FYI - We LOVE maple syrup. I would gladly sign up to be your guinea pig! Best of luck, wish we had maple trees!