For maple sugaring veterans, warm days—temperatures above freezing, at least—and cold nights mark the high season for harvesting one of nature’s sweetest treats: maple syrup.
Katonah resident Frank Fox knows the early February drill: trudging through snow, enduring wet feet and cold fingers while tapping trees and stringing collection tubes throughout his property.
In the coming weeks, that work should yield about 1,000 gallons of sap, which Fox will carefully boil down in his sugaring house to produce about 100 quarts of sweet, delicious maple syrup.
That daunting ratio—40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup— has never deterred Fox, nor should it deter the beginning backyard sugaring enthusiast.
To find out more, I interviewed Fox, the experts at the Trailside Museum at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, and recalled my own experiences in sugaring. It's all shared here in a "maple sugaring 101," for the backyard enthusiast or syrup-making novice.
Discovered by American Indians
Turns out, it was the Native Americans who unlocked nature’s sweet secret, eventually sharing their knowledge with the colonists.
Jason Klein, a museum naturalist at the Trailside Museum, explained at last Saturday's program that the Lenape Indians of this area knew that the return of crows in mid-winter signaled the time to pack up the family and head out to their “sugar bush.” Each family in a tribe had their own area of hundreds of trees that became the family’s home and worksite for weeks at a time, he said.
Young and old alike gathered maple sap from nearly one thousand “taps” in the trees, boiling it down in the sugar house day and night to create a supply of maple sugar—not syrup.
“There were no glass bottles for liquid storage,” Klein said. “The Lenape would boil the sap beyond syrup to make sugar, which they would store in birch bark containers. The goal was to make enough sugar to last all year, which we now believe was about 12 percent of the Lenape’s overall diet,” Klein noted.
Klein demonstrated how the Lenape were able to boil sap with no metal cooking vessesls: Pulling several stones from a campfire, he quickly transferred each one into the wooden trough filled with sap. Almost instantly, the liquid began to boil. “Family members collected sap, stoked fires and transferred rocks 24 hours a day for six weeks, non-stop,” Klein explained.
Eventually, the growing abundance of imported cane sugar and better storage options led to the rise of maple syrup as the dominant end product. Today’s maple sugar producers use more sophisticated equipment and techniques.
Fox’s “backyard” operation
“I started with two or three taps in 1971 relying on advice from a neighbor,” he said. “Through trial and error, reading and consulting with others I’ve learned a lot over the years. This year I have 117 taps set and as long as the weather cooperates, should have a fine output.”
On Fox’s property, as on many commercial sugaring farms, taps in the trees are connected to tubes, which run tree-to-tree and join together like an expansive highway system. For this trip, all roads lead to the collection tank behind the sugar house, which houses the evaporator, a more efficient way to boil down the sap.
Fox has added another modern twist to the process: a vacuum pump system that draws sap to the sugar house from taps and lines that are downhill. “Without a vacuum system, all the lines work on gravity, so every tapped tree must be uphill from the sugar house to let sap flow to the collection tank,” he said. “Without this pump, sap from downhill trees would have to be collected in buckets and manually transferred to the collecting tank.”
Which is how it’s done at Trailside Museum’s sugaring operation, going on throughout this month. “We have 46 buckets out on tress throughout the reservation,” Klein noted. Depending on the weather, we may have to empty each bucket twice a day.” Sap weighs eight pounds a gallon, and at six to 10 gallons per bucket per day, that’s a heavy load.
It all adds up to a lot of work, much of which must be done in cold, winter weather.
But for maple syrup lovers, the results are worth it.
“We get different grades of syrup throughout the sugaring season, with the first sap producing the most delicate sweet liquid,” Klein said. As the season progresses, grade A medium amber, grade A dark amber and ultimately grade B syrup is produced. “But the labels are hardly an indicator of which syrup you’ll like best,” Klein said, as he gently stirred sap in the steaming evaporator in the sugar house behind Trailside Museum. “My wife thinks late season Grade B is absolutely tops,” he added
Sweet Rewards in Your Own Backyard
So, can you try it at home?
If you’re inspired by the Lenape, or by Frank Fox, know that anyone with a sugar maple tree in their yard and a willingness to work at it can tap into nature’s goodness.
I have and I’ve lived to tell about it: First, make sure the tree is a sugar maple. Red maples can be tapped, but the sugar content of the sap is not as high. The size of the tree dictates the number of taps it can support: at chest height, the tree should be 10 to 12 inches in diameter before it can be tapped.
For example, a tree 18 inches in diameter can support two taps; 24 inches allows for three taps; 30 inches, four taps—but never more than four taps.
A basic Google search results in several websites, such as tapmytrees.com, that sell sugaring supplies to amateurs, along with complete instructions about how to do it right. On days when the sap is flowing, be prepared to empty buckets or containers several times a day.
Boiling sap on the stove can be tedious and potentially unsafe process, if you’re not closely monitoring the stove. I stepped away during the multi-hour process and the “sap” went from syrup to crystallized sugar to smoking pan just about to start a house fire in minutes. A second try on our gas grill “sugar house” worked better. Once boiled down, the syrup must be filtered through cheesecloth or other fine mesh.
For young children, the results of maple sugaring can be pure magic. When they witness the transformation from a sticky, clear liquid oozing from a tree to a dark, sweet syrup on pancakes or oatmeal or ice cream, their eyes are opened to nature’s bounty and ingenuity.
Trailside Museum expects to have their sugar house in action throughout this month. Public programs are scheduled for Saturdays, March 12 and 25, with the latter including a chance to sample the sweet results of another sugaring season.