Another Wisconsin spring ritual or tradition is tapping maple trees and cooking down the sap for maple syrup. This coming spring with all the recent cold weather making maple syrup could be weeks away, but one never knows with the up and down weather that Wisconsinites have had this year. There are some other signs or harbingers of spring that I always look for like; the 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 the emergence of wild asparagus and morel mushrooms which comes much later.
Being outdoors regularly, I look forward to the spring and the numerous bounties that a new season brings. I told you of my introduction to tapping my maple trees 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 a couple of springs ago over breakfast. Then, Jim was in the process of making his syrup and after talking and telling me about his process, I decided to try it for the first time with my friend, Quilla Pine. For making maple syrup for the first time, it turned out to be another “ fun thing “ to add to my collection of spring rituals. 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 Leystra turned me on to this ritual.
If you go back into American history, the Native Americans made maple syrup and “traded” it with white fur traders along the St. Lawrence River and in the Great Lakes region.
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 some trees will give you a higher sugar content. Jim told me that he watches for the buds to appear on the maple trees to see if it’s time to start tapping his trees. Ideally, what you want are warm days with temperatures in the mid to upper 30’s F. and cool temperatures in the 20’s F. at night. Weather like this would be ideal and the sap from the maples would be constantly flowing. Leystra also said that he likes to have his tapping trees be at least 20 inches in diameter before drilling into them. Next step, 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 with a clean surface for the best results. Don’t drill a hole within a couple of feet of any other old hole. Drill the tap hole slightly upward so that the sap can flow freely. Tap the spout gently into the tree 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 for you 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 up to 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 the weather. The average tap hole can produce anywhere from 5 to 15 gallons of sap per season. But, under the right conditions, a maple tree can produce up to 40 or more 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 your pails, it’s time to start the cooking the sap and making syrup. 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 needed to cook the sap down. 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 on the fire. We cook our sap in a pan measuring about 30” X 30” and keep it about ½ to ¾ full while on the fire.
Keep the sap cool while waiting to add it to the boiling pan because sap like milk can sour and collect bacteria. Boil and cook the sap as soon as possible after your done tapping your trees. When the sap changes color to an amber hue 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 bringing 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 too.
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 of the jar. 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 (whenever it comes) can stop the sap from running and the maple syrup season will soon be nothing but memories. It always is a good year no matter how much maple syrup is made and the few gallons that I make are well worth the work!