Maple Sugaring at Home Anywhere – Part 1 – Sap Collection

I recently started making my own maple syrup at home in the Pacific Northwest, and it’s surprisingly easy to do and is one of the few hobby farming activities I’ve done that should pay for itself within a couple months.

I love maple flavored anything.  I always have, and I always will.  Since I was a small kid, when others had brown sugar in their oatmeal, I wanted maple syrup.  When I made snickerdoodles in college, the coating was always maple sugar.  When I decided to make my own sugar, the answer was naturally maple.

You Can Tap Any Maple Tree

Previously, I had mistakenly believed you had to have a sugar maple and likely be in Vermont to have much luck in this adventure, but thanks to ignoring everything I read initially on the internet, I realized it wasn’t really that hard.  If you had any maple trees that weren’t dainty little dwarfs, you were probably fine.  I believe the tree I’m currently tapping is a Pacific Northwest native, the vine maple.  The tree is quite large compared to most vine maples in the area, and I suspect it’s quite old.  It also fortunately is directly next to my parent’s pond.  I’m not sure if it’s the amount of water it has access to, the fact it’s an old tree, or what, but despite everything I’ve read it typically gives 1-2 gallons of sap a day depending on weather conditions.  Keep in mind, boiled down to syrup, 1 gallon is only about 4 ounces of syrup or half a cup.  2 gallons is about 1 cup or 8 ounces.  This varies, of course, depending on the tree you’re using.

This post aims to go over how simple it is to start collecting sap.  All you really need is a spile, a bucket, a maple tree, and weather that’s below freezing at night and over freezing during the day.  The next will cover processing the sap without buying expensive equipment to measure sugar content.  While I think the below package is probably the most economical option I’ve found if you’re interested in 3 spiles and stainless steel setups, for those wondering if it’s right for you, I personally purchased a single bucket, lid, and spile (links below in read more – though know I have no love for the included book) from the same company for starting out.  That said, it works great, and hasn’t even blown out in our recent terrible winds!

How to Tap a Maple Tree and Select a Tree for Sugaring:

  1. Find a maple tree, the wider the trunk the better
  2. Wait for the weather to be freezing at night, above freezing during the day (PNW winter weather!)
  3. Drill a slightly upward aimed hole to fit your spile in the tree
  4. Tap your spile into the tree gently with a hammer
  5. Hang bucket on spile
  6. Check to see if bucket is full as frequently as you like,  but at least daily
  7. Boil sap until it’s syrup, skimming off foam if you don’t want it to taste woody
  8. Pour into container and refrigerate – or consume immediately if you have no self control like yours truly!

Materials for Maple Sugaring – The Economics

Bucket and spile – all you really need. Lids are nice too!

I’ve read a lot about a variety of very expensive set ups for hobby maple sugaring to cost all your money.  This includes refractometers, giant outdoor boiling setups using propane, expensive multi-tap tubing setups, and so on.  I will say, I went for stainless steel buckets, which if I went plastic would likely have ended up being cheaper, but I always feel like there’s a weird after taste when I put food in plastic so chose to avoid it.

I originally wanted this maple sugaring package  from Amazon.  It was cheaper than the company’s website and the best price on taps, included a drill and plenty of buckets, and had a book,  but it was a bit expensive for starting something I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy yet.

My sister was kind enough to get me the individual pieces and the book for Christmas, including:

  1.  single spile with a hook (~$3)
  2. a 2 gallon sap bucket lid (~$6)
  3.  a 2 gallon stainless steel bucket with place to hook onto the spile (~$22)

Tools needed are a drill and properly sized drill bit for your spile.

She also got me a book, Maple Sugaring at Home.  I recommend not purchasing the book.  It contained very basic information I could find online and implied that to maple sugar you had to be in the Northeast, which is just not true!  There are maples in the Northwest too, and in lots of the United States in general even if sugar maples are native to the Northeast.  Heck, you could be in certain villages in Korea where maple sap water was consumed for hydration for ages and make maple syrup there too if you wanted.  One point it is correct on is that you don’t need to use a sugar maple, but we will get to that later.

Bucket hooks onto spile and collects sap.

With the spile at $3, the bucket lid at $6, and the bucket at $22 (keeping in mind, Amazon prices vary regularly to deal with shipping costs), the total start up cost for my endeavor was $31.  Admittedly, getting the maple sugaring package linked above is more economical if you want to get 3 taps, buckets, a lid, and a properly sized drill bit, but this is a much more affordable option for seeing if you’re interested in it and if your trees produce well.

Given maple syrup in my area sells for about $0.50 an ounce if I order it online or closer to $0.75 an ounce  if I order it at the store, I needed to produce 62 ounces or 7 and 3/4 of a cup of syrup to pay off my investment, or given it’s about $0.75 per cup (8 oz) of maple water (aka sap), I could just give my husband his favorite drink 41 times and call that good too!  I’m aware these numbers don’t include the cost of propane if I chose to boil sap outside or the cost of electricity boiling inside, but those amounts are difficult to calculate for sure since I did it indoors, and if I just gave my husband maple water, no boiling is required!

So far, I’ve had 8 gallons or 128 cups of sap,  so victory already if I used it for the maple sap drinking trend.  Unfortunately, I want that sweet, sweet sugar, so I need about double my current quantity in syrup to meet my quota for the year and just think of the future syrup as sweet, sweet savings.  That shouldn’t be a problem given I have gotten the 8 gallons in about 1 month since Christmas with plenty of suboptimal weather days (freezing all day and all night for weeks!), and ideal weather will be continuing for at least another month!

How to Tap a Maple Tree of for Maple Sap

I didn’t drill wide enough so my spile is sticking out an inch. I still get plenty of sap!

I’d like to pretend I’m an expert in this area, but I’m very clearly not given I’ve only done this for a few months.  That said, for a good demonstration of how to tap the tree, I’ll refer you to the WSU extension youtube video about tapping a bigleaf maple tree for syrup.

I didn’t have the right size drill bit for my tap, but I managed to apparently get it in well enough that I get plenty of sap, so that’s good.  I also didn’t get my tap in nearly all the way, but everything still appears to be fine, so don’t worry too much about being perfect!  If you were a commercial operation, perfection likely matters a bit more, but my imperfect operation got me plenty of sap as is.

Optimal Weather Conditions for Maple Sap

Generally, best sap flow happens when the weather is below freezing at night, and above freezing (~40 degrees is best) during the day.  That said, sap does flow outside those circumstances in the winter, at least at my house.  In the East, that apparently starts in February usually.  Around here, our weather started in November, but it is pretty sporadic.

How to Decide What Maple Tree to Tap

I picked the fattest tree I could find that got sunshine during the day!

In the PNW, Bigleaf Maples are the most popular to tap.  They’re street decorations in a lot of areas, have a nice, thick trunk so that it’s unlikely to hit heartwood when you drill in the 2-2 1/2 inches for your spile, and prolific.  I only had vine maples available, and the ones at my house were a bit scrawny.  While I’ll try tapping my large one next year most likely, this year I decided to tap a giant mystery maple tree at my mom’s house since I was going to visit her daily anyway due to her health.  I don’t recommend tapping someone else’s tree unless they live close by, since your buckets will frequently fill with good weather.

Really, any maple works.  Different varieties are tapped around the world, often just for their sap, but they can be boiled down with slightly varying flavors, but all with a very important component: sweet, sweet sugar.

Some things to note, while I think smaller vine maples will likely work and plan to try it next year with some of mine, keep in mind you will want to drill in the spile a more shallow amount so you don’t hit the heartwood.  The sapwood is where the sap flows, and go too deep to where you get the dark wood as saw dust and you won’t get good flow.  With smaller trees, there’s less sapwood and likely less flow of sap.

Also, consider whether or not the tree gets direct sunlight.  A lot of the trees at my house don’t, and even at my mom’s too since they’re under evergreens.  Direct sunlight helps them defrost faster during the day and get that sap flowing!

Additional reading! – Most information you may need – significantly more useful than the aforementioned book – Article about what gets sap flowing!

My next post will cover inexpensive processing at home just using your stove top and a thermometer!  I hope everyone enjoys the rest of the maple sugaring season like I am!