Making Maple Syrup At Home

Making Maple Syrup at home is a blast, but it is likely faster, cheaper and more environmentally sound to jump on your bike and go buy commercially made maple syrup at the store.  There is no way to mass-mass produce this, so you are supporting the local economy (at least in Canada) and independent producers. So there is nothing wrong with buying your syrup.

However, if you simply must produce your own (and frankly I do fall in that camp), here is a breakdown of what is involved and some lessons learned along the way that keep my sugaring a positive experience.

Homemade maple syrup FTW! I did one final filter and then used the filtered yumminess on my breakfast - potato scone bread french toast & bacon this morning. Because why waste the b-grade filtered out syrup just because it's cloudy? SO GOOD!

Let’s start with:

A quick overview of how to make  maple syrup at home:

Because even a little sap can produce enough maple syrup to make me smile!

Tap

Tapping involves drilling a hole in a tree, a maple tree, and inserting a spile (or tap) and some form of bucket to collect the sap.

Tapping the Sugar Maples
This post includes a video from One Modern Couple which will give you a good feel for what’s involved in tapping a maple and getting your spile and bucket setup to collect sap.

IMG_20150406_095712

Collect

This is a pretty simple step. You check your taps and collect the sap in the buckets. We collect into empty water bottles because they are sterile-ish, fairly easy to carry around and readily available.

Collecting the sap

Boil

This is the most time-consuming part of the process, reducing the sap down into maple syrup.

And our next fire is not for smoke but for sugaring! 100 litres of sap to boil off. #maplesugaring #sap #fire #boil #sugaring #maplesyrup #selfie #homesteading #diy #Ontario #LexGoFurther
This is what you look like at the beginning

Generally, it’s a 40:1 sap:syrup ratio, so you have to boil a long time to get your sap reduced enough to become syrup. The more sap you collect, the more boiling (or sugaring) you will do. Prepare for it to take longer than you think. Much. Longer.

Sugaring is all about the evaporation

This is what you look like part way through. It’s usually cold out, or raining… for extra fun!

Bottle

Clean, sterile, hot bottles. Put the maple syrup in and close them up.

Noah helping to bottle the maple syrup
Noah has tough fingers and helps me get these into hot bottles almost every year!

Yes, it’s that simple.

One bottle from every batch this sugaring season. Refraction in action.
One bottle from every batch from our last sugaring season. Refraction in action.

Lessons Learned about making maple syrup at home

Lesson 1 – making maple syrup is expensive

Let’s look at our first haul from our first year of tapping, collecting and boiling maple sap into maple syrup. Now this is not the full first year, just the first collection of sap.

We got 4 tablespoons of maple syrup. 4 TABLESPOONS!
One final filter on this morning's syrup. Beautiful Fancy-grade syrup.

That 4 tablespoons of syrup cost us:

  • $110 in equipment
    • sure, that cost will be amortised across years, but the setup year is important and we will keep having to invest in lids if those crazy lids keep blowing off like they have been.
  • $90 Autoshare rental to get to our trees
    • yes, it’s silly, but I have neither a car nor a maple tree near my home that I’m allowed to tap. See Lesson #3
  • $1 per tap to reduce the sap to syrup (usually dealing with 1/2-1 litre of syrup per tap assuming you can collect for the full season)
    • The professionals estimate 40 face cords for each 3000 taps. And that you can get approximately 40 litres of sap per tap.  So approximately 1/10 of a face cord per 1 litre of syrup. Which works out, with rounding and hand-waving math to be about $1 of mixed hardwood per litre of syrup produced.  I used electricity for those 4Tablespoons… which isn’t always cheaper. (maybe not ever)

We need wood

So it cost roughly $200 to produce 4T of syrup.

For those of you harkening back to my previous statement that the syrup was “free” for my Live Below The Line Challenge. That year I poached maple sap from someone else’s taps (with permission) when visiting friends late in the season.  So it was free.

Now… that’s just the first batch that costs $50 a Tablespoon. True

And each batch after that amortizes some of the costs. True.

But each year you need to refresh equipment. You still need to get to your trees. You still need to reduce that sap to syrup.

And I haven’t included the cost of collection containers, sterilization, or packaging… because even if you are making it for yourself only, you still need to put it in something sterile.

Lesson 2 – identify your trees when they have LEAVES!

Oh sure, that sounds obvious now. But it’s easy to be over confident, especially on someone else’s property. You assume they know which trees are the maples. They assume you’ve scoped it out because it’s your project.  There you stand with a drill in hand looking up and saying, “Is that a maple?” “I think it’s a maple” “how can you tell?” “Google it”… oh “identify trees in the fall” … sure if you want to do it the easy  way.

sugaring - maple tree in early spring

 

Lesson 3 – collecting. You are constantly collecting and boiling.

When the trees start producing, you need to be there to collect. Unless you’ve invest in tubes and storage tanks (see Lesson 1 – It’s expensive), you need to run around every day or two and empty those buckets.
Sugaring
And process the sap because it will only keep 5 days refrigerated. (1 year frozen, but who has a freezer that big?)

The fruits of our labour! Sappy right? #maplesugaring #sap #bucket #full #ice #homesteading #diy #Ontario #LexGoFurther
A full bucket is a beautiful thing, as long as you catch it without wasting any sap.

Sure you don’t have to collect, but that’s kind of wasting isn’t it? Yes, yes it is!

Lesson 4  – pay attention

When you are processing your sap it takes a very very long time. Then, instantly, you have to be on the ball or your beautiful syrup will turn into carbon in no time at all!

Object lesson on staying alert and paying close attention when making maple syrup
What happens when you look away at the wrong moment from a small batch of almost finished syrup. Then you cry.

Lesson 5  – homemade maple syrup is liquid gold

Our first and final maple syrup batches side-by-side. The colour variation is due to the seasonal progression of the sap not, as many people presume, caramelization in the boiling process. The light bottle is Canadian Grade A Extra light (or Golden), aka
First and last maple syrup made in one year. The colour variation is how they are graded and generally indicate the level of “maple” flavour. The butter yellow maple syrup is very delicately flavoured.

After all that time and efforts, you might notice that your maple syrup taste better than commercial syrup. There are reasons for this, and they aren’t all psychological.  While you go through the same steps, you are likely working with fewer and larger trees, so you are getting more sugar in your sap (the size of the roots and canopy have a big effect on this). That means you aren’t cooking it as long, and likely producing a slightly more delicate flavour (at least in ours). Not that 30 minutes here or there makes a difference, we’ve noticed our trees produce something more in the 30:1 ratio rather than the generally accepted 40:1 ratio.  You might even notice a terroir difference. We can taste the difference in the sap between years and between trees.

But also because you put so much time, energy and effort into making this syrup. You are heavily invested. For me that means when we haven’t been able to make a lot one year, that I cringe when I see it being poured on with abandon. Especially if syrup is left on the plate, abandoned.

Imagine seeing a pile of dishes from breakfast each with a tablespoon of syrup left over… 4 of those plates means 4 tablespoons… and hey, wait, that’s $200!

You can see how quickly that maple syrup becomes gold.

refracted Homemade Maple Syrup - graded by colour
Showing syrup for each of the year’s sugaring sessions. The lightest is the earliest collected, and the darkest on the far right is from the last session.

But for all my lessons and learning, warnings and outright disasters, it IS a blast. Even after 2 days of boiling, I’m giddy with delight when we end up with 2.25 litres of maple syrup from 70 litres of sap (yes, that’s only 9 cups from 280 cups.)  If you want to sample our homemade maple syrup, you’d better come help, because that stuff is precious!

This year's Maple Syrup

4 thoughts on “Making Maple Syrup At Home

  • April 1, 2017 at 1:06 pm
    Permalink

    OMG, that part about identifying your maple trees while they still have leaves on is SO SMART!

    I’m really good at tree identification, but it gets REALLY hard to tell maple trees apart from other similar trees!

    Reply
    • April 1, 2017 at 1:07 pm
      Permalink

      That conversation quote is from actual experience… ours.

      Reply
  • April 8, 2017 at 9:57 am
    Permalink

    Loved reading about this process! And if I was I the know about a large group of accessible maple trees I would love to give it a try. I am totally into something like this, the longer and harder the work the bigger the pay off. It must be so satisfying to see the results of your work! And I completely understand now why it is so expensive, I have a new appreciation for maple syrup. Liquid gold indeed.

    Reply
    • April 10, 2017 at 11:47 am
      Permalink

      Thanks Redawna. I was so delighted when I realized my friends would let me tap their trees. I just spent a weekend reducing 52 litres of sap down to 2.5 litres of sap. A whole weekend of tending the fire, skimming the sap, and waiting eagerly for that final stage. I loved it, and I know you would too, but I’m sure it’s not something most people would sign up for annually.

      Reply

What do you think?