Tree Tapping

With all the cold weather up north and the last snow storm that smacked the eastern half of the country a week ago, it’s hard to fathom that spring is around the corner. But I can feel it! Geese are flying north; more and more robins appear each day; I have heard a lone frog calling the past two nights down by our creek; and most importantly, we have tapped our maple trees for sap! I am sure that you have all indulged in the sugary treat known as maple syrup (and I hope its not of the flavored high fructose corn syrup variety), but few know of the actual process of turning the clear, slightly sweet sap that pumps through maple trees in early spring into the amber liquid we smother breakfast treats in.

  • Did you know that it takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup? The sap is boiled and boiled and boiled some more to evaporate excess liquid, leaving us with the finished product.
  • While sugar maples (Acer saccharum) have the highest concentrations of sugar in their sap, silver maple, red maple and black maple are all good candidates as well – you just have to use a few more gallons of sap to get to your gallon of syrup.
  • A maple tree that is tapped for its sap, should be at least 10” in diameter – making it approximately 30 years old.
  • Sap collection season is short – as soon as it is warm enough to make the sap flow you can start collecting, but as soon as the buds on the tree break, the season is over since the sugar content of the sap suddenly decreased and changes the flavor of the sap.
  • After a tap is taken out of the tree at the end of the syrup season, it heals over on its own; a new hole, in a different location, will be drilled and used again the following year.
  • Each tap will produce an average of 10 gallons in a season – which equals about 1 quart of syrup.
The start of our sap production in 2013. This all boiled down to enough syrup for one breakfast.

The start of our sap production in 2013. This all boiled down to enough syrup for one breakfast.

Growing up, my parents made maple syrup. Before last year I had never attempted it on my own. Before last year, I also never realized how little I had to do with the process growing up – I didn’t quite remember, or know, how the whole process worked. Luckily for me, tapping trees and making syrup isn’t super complicated. Last spring, after cutting down a tree that was in the way for our future driveway, we noticed that it was gushing sap out of the stump. Lightbulb!! We can tap trees!! We can make syrup!! So that’s what we did. Living in the “south”, people don’t really make maple syrup that much. How many times have you gone to a store and bought West Virginia Made Maple Syrup? My guess is none. Finding supplies on a short notice was next to impossible, so we improvised. After a quick trip to Lowes and 3 food grade buckets and 10’ of ½” tubing later, we were on our way! We picked out 3 maple trees on the edge of our tree line and slowly drilled a hole just big enough for the tubing to snuggly fit into. We shoved the tubing in the hole, drilled a similar hole in the lid of the bucket and put the other end of the tube in the bucket. Viola! Easy, simple, cheap. And it worked! Our small production of 2013 gave us a few pints of syrup to last through the year.

2013 Sap collection with no spile. Simple and cheap.

2013 Sap collection with no spile. Simple and cheap.

This year we wanted to amp up production a little more. We decided that we would tap 10 trees instead of 3, and upgrade our evaporating method from a turkey fryer to a cinderblock contraption I will talk more about in my next post. My dad had bought a handful of spiles online and sent me ½ of them, so we would have a better seal on our trees. Spiles are small, hollow pieces of plastic or metal which are inserted into the drilled hole of a tree until they are snug. Either a tube can be pushed onto the other side of it to collect the seeping sap, or a hook is on the bottom side where a bucket can be hung to collect the drips. As I learned last year, they aren’t necessary, but make things a bit easier, tighter, and less wasteful.

Sap starts flowing in the spring and runs the best when days are warm (in the 40’s) and nights fall below freezing. The sap will run for about a month, but the best collection time is the beginning of the season when the sap is flowing strong and sweet. To collect the sap:

  1. Gather supplies: food grade buckets with lids (or some people use food grade bags), tubing that fits snug over the end of your spile, a drill (hand drill preferable, but not necessary – see #3), the correct drill bit size for your spile (most likely 5/16” or 7/16”), small hammer or rubber mallet.

    Food grade buckets ready to collect some sap.

    Food grade buckets ready to collect some sap.

  2. Identify suitable trees. Sugar maples are ideal, but as mentioned above, red, silver and black maple all work too. Look for a tree with a large crown; this indicates that more sap will be flowing up through the tree to help feed all the different limbs. You also want a tree that is open grown, or on the edge of the woods. Put your tap on the sunny side of the tree. While these aren’t imperative to sap collection, they will help speed up the amount of sap flowing through the tree each day.  

    Drilling the holes in the bucket lids for the tubing to fit in.

    Drilling the holes in the bucket lids for the tubing to fit in.

  3. Drill a hole in the tree 3-4’ off the ground. Angle the hole slightly up and make it about 2” deep. If you are using a battery operated drill, be sure to drill very slow, otherwise you could end up cauterizing the inside of your hole, sealing it up and stopping the sap from being able to flow out. This is why a hand drill is preferable.

    Slowly drilling the hole in the tree for the spile.

    Slowly drilling the hole in the tree for the spile.

  4. Clean any debris out of the hole and gently tap your spile into the hole until it is snug. Make sure not to force it in too hard or you can crack the wood of the tree, causing your hole to leak.

    Gently hammering the spile into the drilled hole.

    Gently hammering the spile into the drilled hole.

  5. Attach your tubing, or hang your bucket, with your lid to keep out bugs, bark and other undesirable objects. If you are leaving your bucket on the ground instead of hanging it from the spile, put some logs or other heavy objects around it to keep it from blowing over.
    Tubing going into the bucket lid, keeping the bugs out.

    Tubing going into the bucket lid, keeping the bugs out.

    The whole setup: spile, tubing, bucket and a piece of wood to keep it in place.

    The whole setup: spile, tubing, bucket and a piece of wood to keep it in place.

  6. Check back every day or so to empty out your buckets and keep an eye on your progress. Keep all collected sap in a cool place until you are ready to evaporate it. After too many days in the warm it can spoil.
    Catching a drip of sap from the spile.

    Catching a drip of sap from the spile.

    Our stockpile of snow keeping the sap cool until evaporating time.
    Our stockpile of snow keeping the sap cool until evaporating time.

    When the time comes and you are swimming in sap, boil it!! Check back next week when I talk about that.

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3 responses to “Tree Tapping

  1. This is great! Way to use your land! Can’t wait to try some!

  2. Great Info! Sometimes bad info gets on web pages which leads others to make mistakes. West Virginia is not considered as a Maple Producing state, we actually have more tappable trees than the state of Vermont. I predict than with in the next 5 years WV made syrup will be available to anyone who wants it providing they are willing to pay the going rate! At this time a quart of WV Syrups sales on average for 14 dollars. The largest syrup producer in the state made over 5000 gallons and predictions have been made that their will be 5 or more operation that size in WV in the next 10 years.
    What you are doing is very common in WV. In Grant County alone 75% of the Twenty known syrup makers are doing it as a family get together event every spring, sometimes every other year depending on the volume they make.
    I am the elected President of the WV Maple Syrup Producers Assoc. I want to encourage you and others to tap more trees and continue to promote West Virginia and Maple Syrup. Hopefully someday our paths will cross, we as a newly formed Assoc. have started offering educational seminars for syrup production. Mostly towards the larger producers, but open to anyone that wants to learn and expand their syrup making potential. Info available on our Facebook Page or at the WV Dept. of Ag. web page.

    Mark Bowers

    • Thanks Mark! We talked to some people at the WV State Fair about maple production. I think we have a questionnaire we have yet to fill out, oops :/ My husband and I were all excited to go to one of the educational seminars in a few weeks until we realized it was on a weekday. We would love to get more involved and learn more about the WV maple syrup family. Thanks for the encouragement! I am sure our paths will cross someday.

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