You might not have noticed, but drop by drop, the first harvest of 2021 has begun.
There's more sunlight. Maple trees and their shallow roots break their dormancy, and the sap will be ready to rise up. The trees are as anxious for spring as we are.
I'm a backyard tapper, right in the heart of Minneapolis, and you can be, too.
Here, conditions converge to produce sap for maple syrup. We have the requisite long, cold winters and a spring cycle of freezing nights followed by warm days. Minneapolis is on the westernmost edge of this sweet spot — the Northern Deciduous Forest — as it sweeps up into Canada, over the Great Lakes toward the Atlantic Ocean.
Making syrup is pandemic-perfect: It's outdoors, kid-friendly and social. It's fun, kills time and is productive, and in the end you will have bragging rights to your own vintage of homegrown, natural maple syrup with the taste of your own terroir.
It doesn't take much to get started. If you don't have a maple tree, find someone who does, a relative, a neighbor or two (just don't tap trees owned by the city). Any healthy tree more than 11 inches in diameter from the Acer family will do: sugar maple, black maple, red maple, silver maple — even a box elder, which are maples, too.
And you probably already have some of the equipment you'll need: a drill, hammer, buckets, pan and a stockpot. (See the resource box for a complete list.) All you need now is a little patience.
My annual weather watch begins right about now, while daytime temperatures hover around freezing. Timing is everything; tap too soon and the holes can plug up. If you tap too late, then you're out of luck. The budding leaves will change the chemistry of the sap, and it will no longer produce syrup.
I start tapping when I see the cycle begin — freezing nights followed by warm days that top 40 degrees. That's the magic: The cold-warm cycle pulses the sap up the tree to the branches of the crown to feed the buds. (They say you can hear it with a stethoscope.)
Its arrival varies; you'll catch on to the timing. The length of the season, variability and the size of your trees determine your yield. I started small, tapping just one tree. But now my trees and my output both have grown. I have two silver maples and two box elders, each about 24 inches in diameter, that produce 40 to 50 gallons of sap, which I'll turn into one to two gallons of syrup. Sure, they are not the preferred sugar or black maples, but I was a pastry chef, and I figured a unique syrup was better than the usual kind. Exotic even.
Once you've identified your maple and the conditions are right, set the taps. The health of the trees takes priority, so drill carefully and only drill the number of tap holes for the size of your tree. (See the tips below.) Then attach the tubes to the spouts, balance a bucket beneath, cover and insert the tubes and you're on your way. Watch the buckets — on a warm day, they can fill fast. It looks just like a bucket of water, but every year that first bucket of sap is thrilling.
Bringing the heat
Once the sap starts adding up, it's time to make syrup.
It's best to cook the sap outdoors, as things can get a little sticky.
All that collected sap goes into a big holding bucket by my outdoor stove. (If the days get too warm, refrigerate the sap.) When there's a gallon or so, I start to boil it down.
With safety as your guide, set up your heat source. Any propane stove, grill or fire pit with grate will do, and make sure to have plenty of fuel on hand. Woodfire will give your syrup a lovely smoky flavor.
Fill a pot — the bigger and shallower the better — half full of sap and boil, topping it off frequently as it reduces to pale amber. When there's half a pan of pale amber sap, I store it in a metal stockpot. Keep repeating until you use up all of the sap. Once all the sap is pale amber, I bring it inside for a second round of boiling, when it boils down to syrup. Watch it carefully.
After it cools, the syrup is ready to be poured into final bottles; be sure to leave the sediment "sand" behind. From amber to dark brown, its color and taste reflects your tree, terroir and the seasonal peculiarities of 2021.
An ancestral gift
While sap is boiling away, inside the trees it's doing its real job: fueling the buds to leaf out. When those leaf tips show I pull my taps, and reflect on what a gift it is to have these magic trees.
Actually, it was a gift. The Indigenous people tell of how the Creator gave maple syrup to their ancestors. Later, the Indigenous returned the favor and gave it to the early colonists. When the third full moon of the new year arrived, it was Iskigamizige-giizis, the season of the sap moon. It was a time to gather at the sugarbush, set up a "wigwasigamig," wigwam, and start tapping trees.
Climate change has mitigated that cycle; it occurs earlier now, threatening the future of this sacred gift.
Step 1: Gather equipment.
You'll need a drill, clean bit, taps, tubing and covered buckets. Wash, rinse and air-dry all the tubes and buckets. Sanitize any part that touches the tree with a solution of 1/2 teaspoon of bleach to 1 quart of water and let air-dry. (Don't touch the parts that will come in contact with the tree.)
Step 2: Find your tree
Determine if your tree fits the bill. It has to be healthy and at least 11 inches in diameter, and the higher the sugar content the better. Sugar and black maples are best, but red maples, silver maples and box elder trees will work, too. Think twice if the area around the tree is chemically treated, and don't forget that city trees are off limits.
Step 3: Drill the hole
This is a critical step. Holes should be 2 to 3 feet above ground, and positioned at least 3 inches on either side of old holes and 6 inches above or below old holes. Be sure to aim straight in, err on aiming up a bit, and drill a hole about 1 1/2 inches deep. Use one smooth motion in and out; don't stop, don't wiggle it in. The shavings should be pale, not brown. Resist the urge to blow the shavings away.
Step 4: Tapping the tap
Use the hammer lightly. Don't force it by pounding, just "tap" it in. How many taps should you use? The rule of thumb is one tap if your tree is 11 to 17 inches in diameter, two taps if it's 18 to 24 inches, and three taps if it's larger than 24 inches.
Step 5: Prepare your containers
If your bucket is plastic, make sure it's food-grade plastic. And whatever you use, make sure it's clean and has a handle and a cover. Use your drill to make a hole the same size as the tubing. Spring means rain, which is why the tube should fit snugly; you don't want water, bugs or debris to get in.
Step 6: Tube time
Attach the tube to the tap and run it through the hole in the lid. Be sure it's a snug fit so water or nature's tiny creatures don't sneak in.
Step 7: Watch and wait
You've done the outside work; hopefully the sap will flow. Collect the sap daily, making sure to remove any ice that forms overnight. Keep your holding bucket in the shade or in snow. If the weather turns unseasonably warm, refrigerate it. Now phase two begins: turning the sap into syrup.
From sap to syrup
1. This is the step you'll want to do on an outdoor cooking source. Once you have enough sap (I usually wait until there's more than a gallon), fill a shallow pan about half full and boil, topping it off frequently as it reduces and turns pale amber. It takes a lot of sap to make syrup. A single tree might give off 10 gallons of sap, which will yield 1 quart of syrup.
2. When there's a half pan of pale amber sap, store it in a lidded metal stock pot — make sure it's not plastic — for storing. Keep repeating until you've used up all the sap.
3. After all your sap is pale amber, it's time to bring the process inside. Put it on the stove and boil, uncovered, until it registers 218 or 219 degrees on a candy thermometer. Watch it carefully. Enough water will evaporate and the remaining sugar content is high enough to be a thick syrup.
4. If desired, you can strain hot syrup through a filter. I don't, because the sediment eventually settles at the bottom.
5. Pour syrup into jars and label, date and admire your handiwork. You can store your syrup in the freezer — it should remain liquid and be available to use as needed.
6. Remember, practice makes perfect. Your first try might seem daunting, but there's always next year.
Tools of the trade
Before embarking on your syrup-making adventure, make sure you're well-equipped. This is what author Susan Dietrich Hassler uses.
• Taps or spiles; 5/16-inch size is recommended
• Sharp, new 5/16-inch drill bit; make sure the size matches the tap
• Tubing for 5/16-inch spout
• Sap and collection buckets with covers and handles (if using plastic, make sure it's food-grade). A 5-gallon bucket works well.
• Outdoor stove and fuel. Use what you have on hand for fuel: wood, charcoal, propane, electric; and a stove could be a grill, camping stove or a grate over a fire pit.
• Wide, shallow pan to boil sap
• Candy thermometer. Check accuracy by putting it into boiling water; it should register 212 degrees.
• Large stock pot with cover to store hot unfinished sap
• Assorted glass jars and lids for final syrup
From information to equipment, where to find answers.
EggPlant Urban Farm Supply:
The store has taps, metal and food-grade plastic buckets, sap bags and holders, filters, hydrometers and kits geared toward beginners. "We love to talk people through their first tapping experience," the owners said. (1771 Selby Av., St. Paul, 651-645-0818, eggplantsupply.com)
Minnesota Maple Syrup Producers Association: The nonprofit MMSPA has lists of resources, links and recipes. Become a member for $25 a year. mnmaple.org
Paper and Pear: Find many styles of custom maple syrup labels from this Shakopee-based business. (paperandpearstore.etsy.com)
Bascom Maple Farms: Based in New Hampshire, it has everything you need from taps and fancy bottles to how-to articles. bascommaple.com
Leader Evaporator: The Vermont supplier has been helping syrupers "get maple done" for 132 years. leaderevaporator.com
Amazon: When in doubt, or if you're in a hurry, there's amazon.com.
Cooking with syrup
There are plenty of recipes using maple syrup. For a sinful idea, try maple caramel:
Maple caramel: In a saucepan, combine 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons of maple syrup, 1 cup of cream, 3/4 teaspoon of lemon juice and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Bring mixture to a boil and boil gently — but do not mix or disturb —until it is reduced by half, or registers 230 degrees on a candy thermometer. Scrape sides gently and set aside to cool undisturbed.
Susan Dietrich Hassler is a freelance writer from Minneapolis who wants to pass on the Creator's gift.