Another Wisconsin spring ritual or tradition is tapping maple trees and cooking down the sap for maple syrup. This spring, with the early spring weather, has allowed for tapping of maple trees much earlier than most years. Some of the harbingers of spring are; the bird migration of birds and ducks as they migrate from winter locations to nesting spots in Wisconsin, animals coming out of hibernation, buds on trees, the emergence of early spring flowers like the Siberian squill, crocuses, and tulips, the spring migration of fish like the walleye to areas where they will spawn as the water warms, and a little later the coming of wild asparagus and morel mushrooms.
Being outdoors regularly, I look forward to the spring and the numerous bounties that a new season brings. Last year, I told you of my introduction to tapping maple trees, on my own land, from Jim Leystra, of Leystra’s Venture Restaurant in Sauk City, Wisconsin. Jim has been tapping his maple trees for decades and turned me on to this great Wisconsin tradition when we talked one day last year over breakfast. Jim was in the process of making his syrup and after talking and telling me about his process, I decided to try it with my friend, Quilla Pine. For making maple syrup for the first time, it turned out to be another operation to add to my spring rituals of fishing, mushrooms hunting, and watching birds and ducks migrate northward. I had seen my grandfather make syrup at a “sugar bush” camp in northern Wisconsin when I was a child, but that was all that I knew till last spring.
If you go back into history, the Native Americans made maple syrup and “traded” with white fur traders along the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes.
All maple trees like the red, sugar, black, and silver maples will produce a sugary sap that when “cooked down” will produce sweet maple syrup. Some maple trees produce more sap and a sap with a higher sugar content. Jim Leystra told me that he watches for the buds to appear on the maple trees to see when to start tapping his trees. Ideally, what one wants are warm days with temperatures in the mid to upper 30’s during the day and cool temperatures in the 20’s at night. The last week has been ideal and the sap from the maples has been running constantly. Leystra also said that he likes to have tapping trees be at least 20 inches in diameter. Next, drill a hole for your tap or spout using a 7/16 drill bit to make a 2 or 3 inch hole in the maple tree. Use an area without any blemishes and a clean surface for best results. Don’t drill a hole within a couple of feet of any old hole. Drill the tap hole slightly upward so that the sap can freely flow. Tap the spout gently so that it fits tight to the hole, but not too tight that it would split the wood. Drill your tap holes about 3 to 4 feet above the ground so that it is convenient once the sap starts flowing. Five gallon pails make good syrup containers and will hang on any commercially bought tap. Be sure to cover the pails so that you don’t get any water, snow, or foreign matter into the sap. Maple trees with a diameter of 20 inches or less should have only one tap, trees with a diameter of 20 to 25 inches may have 2 taps, and trees over 30 inches in diameter may have 3 taps. Never use more that three taps on any one tree.
How much sap you get out of a tree depends on the method of tapping, the size of the tree, and seasonal differences in weather. The average tap hole can produce 5 to 15 gallons of sap per season. But, under the right conditions, a maple tree can produce from 40 to 80 gallons per year. Remember, that it takes 10 gallons of sap to produce 1 quart of maple syrup. Leystra told me that it takes him 30- to 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup. The sap of an average maple tree produces sap with a sugar content of 2 to 3 %. The sugar content can vary from the time of day that it was taken with higher sugar in the morning than the afternoon. A normal day will produce about 5 gallons of sap per tree.
Now that you have the maple’s sap flowing and collected in pails, it’s time to start the cooking and sap making process. Jim told me to do my cooking outside because the sap is sticky and will get everything coated if cooked inside. He’s made a cooking surface and stove out of firebricks which won’t split under the hot fire. Jim has a large supply of dry oak and elm to keep the fire continuously burning. A hot fire is necessary for cooking down the sap into syrup. As the sap cooks down, more fresh sap is constantly added to the boiling sap. We cook our sap in a pan measuring about 30” X 30” and kept about ½ to ¾ full while on the fire.
Keep the sap cool while waiting to add the extra sap to the boiling pan because sap like milk can sour and collect bacteria. Boil and cook the sap as soon as possible after your tapping. When the sap changes color to amber it becomes sweeter. Now is the time to strain and filter your maple syrup and let it settle for a few days to have the maple syrup sand settle before finishing the syrup process. Then, you bring the syrup back to a rolling boil and filter it again before bring it back to a low simmer or about 200 degrees F. Ideally, sap becomes maple syrup when it reaches 66 to 67 % sugar content at 7.1 degrees above the boiling point of water. This can vary with one’s elevation and barometric pressure.
The final process is canning the syrup which should be done at 180 degrees F. Pour the hot syrup into sterilized canning jars and seal. Fill them so that there is a little room for air at the top. Lay them on their sides for a better seal. Store the syrup in a cool and dry place and if opened be sure to refrigerate the open jar or it will become contaminated.
Now after all this work, cook up some pancakes or waffles and enjoy your bounty! The maple syrup season can last from late February into April in a “good” year. The warm spring weather this week will stop the sap from running and the maple syrup season will be nothing but memories. It was a good year while it lasted and the few gallons that we make are well worth the work!