Make your own maple syrup without harming the trees

Maple trees are just the beginning. You can tap, boil, and brew tree syrup from many other species too.

Maple syrup ready for pancakes and waffles.
LadyDragonFlyCC via Wiki
This story was originally featured on Outdoor Life.

There are windows of opportunity in nature, and one of my annual favorites is “sugaring time.” In late winter, tree sap begins to flow, and from the right trees, this sap can be collected and concentrated into a very special (and very delicious) caloric resource—sweet tree syrup. Most of us focus on how to make maple syrup during this window. But maple trees are just the beginning. Here’s what you need to know about the history of tree tapping and the basics on how to tap trees for syrup.

A quick history of tree tapping

There are many legends surrounding the discovery of maple syrup in the American Northeast. One of my favorites involves a Native warrior practicing with his tomahawk. After sticking the axe many times into a sugar maple tree in early spring, his wife noticed the water running out of the trunk. She gathered this water and prepared a soup—which turned out to be surprisingly sweet. After a little experimentation, maple syrup was born.

While it seems likely Native Americans independently discovered that tree saps can be boiled down into syrup, the idea that tree tapping is a unique skill of the First People of the New World just isn’t accurate. Tree sap was collected and used as a food and drink resource in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere for more than a thousand years (and not just in the boreal regions). The Arabian explorer Ahmad ibn Fadlān documented the Bolgar people collecting birch tree sap near the Volga River and fermenting it into an alcoholic beverage in 921. For many centuries, in fact, birch sap has been consumed fresh as drinking water, boiled down into a sugary syrup, and converted into a wine-like beverage in Russia, Scandinavia, Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, and several other European countries.

How tree sap flows

Throughout the Northern Hemisphere, you’ll see trees with running sap between January and early March each year. Specific timing depends on the weather, latitude, elevation, and the tree species you are working with. Some of these trees can be sources of water if you get caught outside without anything safe to drink. Other trees can provide delicious syrup. This sweet treat represents life-saving calories at one of the roughest times of the year for survival, but it’s also great for everyday culinary uses.

Most tree tappers know that the sap flows best in the late winter, when the nights are below freezing and the days are above freezing. What is not commonly known (by non-botanists) is how the sap actually flows. During the late winter and early spring of each year, the water inside the tree has greater pressure in the roots than at the crown of the tree. This greater pressure pushes the water up toward the crown, carrying some of the sugars that were stored in the tree roots. Since this internal water pressure is higher than the atmospheric pressure, any hole in the tree bark will allow sap to flow out of the tree rather than continuing to flow through the tree.

How to tap a tree

Drill a hole through the bark, about 2 inches into the sapwood, angling the hole upward. Any reasonably sized drill bit can work, but many folks go with a 7/16 inch hole, which matches the commercially available tree taps known as spiles. Once you’ve drilled your hole, you can hammer in a spile and hang a bucket or jug on it to collect the sap.

If you can’t find a supplier for spiles, use whatever you have. Half-inch vinyl tubing works well, as will bamboo, PVC pipe and metal pipe pieces. All you really need is something to channel the sap to drip into your container. Plastic drinking water jugs are fine for sap collecting, as are the classic little metal buckets. In recent years, I’ve started using plastic vinegar jugs. These vinegar jugs are thicker walled and stronger than water jugs. This keeps your jugs from bursting due to freeze expansion. Does tapping hurt the tree? In short, the answer is no, as long as you don’t plunge your tap deeper than 2.5 inches, where it is possible to hit the heart of the tree.

Choose your trees for maple syrup and more

Maple syrup is certainly the main tree sap sweetener in the world, and it’s known and exported worldwide. The sugar maple isn’t the only tree species that can provide us with tasty syrup. Sycamore trees (Platanus occidentalis), birch trees (the genus Betula), and hickories (the genus Carya) can also be tapped for drinking water or boiled for syrup. Black birch is particularly delicious, with a rich flavor similar to wintergreen.

Walnut trees (the genus Juglans) are another option. These can be tapped for drinking water at the end of winter, or the sap can be collected and boiled down into syrup. Here’s the odd issue, though. Walnut trees have a small amount of iodine in the nuts and in their sap. When reduced and concentrated, the finished walnut syrup is sweet, but it also bears a slight bitterness that is briny, kelp-like and almost fishy (from the iodine). For that reason, walnut syrup is not particularly popular and is regarded as inferior to maple. But if you’re looking for something different and you use fish sauce in your cooking on a regular basis, you might like it. Otherwise, you may want to skip the walnuts for syrup production (and you’ll definitely want to skip them if you’re allergic to walnuts and other tree nuts).

Tips for tapping trees

While these tips are most commonly used with maples, they can also help you when tapping any species of tree.

  • You’ll typically get the best sap flow on the south side of the tree (in the Northern Hemisphere), since that side has the most sun exposure and is naturally warmer.
  • Put in one tap for each foot of diameter on the tree trunk.
  • Younger trees are often more productive than older trees.
  • If you’re using it for drinking water, drink it within a few days. The sap doesn’t keep long without souring.
  • Treat sap like milk—keep it cold, keep it clean, and do something with it sooner rather than later.
  • If the sap has turned cloudy and smells sour (usually after sitting for more than one week), it has become a breeding ground for bacteria and should be discarded.
  • Collect your sap each day to avoid overflowing containers and wasted sap.
  • The sap doesn’t run the same every day.
  • Make as many taps as you can, to make this venture worthwhile.

How to boil tree sap

With the largest pot you own and a reliable heat source, you can head outside and start boiling whenever you’ve collected “enough” sap from your trees. Boiling indoors is never a good solution, as every surface will soon be covered with condensed water. Boiling can be achieved over a wood fire or propane burner. Bring the sap to a boil and keep it boiling until it visibly thickens. It should look like new motor oil (in color and viscosity) when you are close to finishing. Dip a spoon into the syrup and pull out one spoonful of this amazing tree sugar. Allow it to cool for a moment and then see how it pours. If the syrup forms a curtain-like sheet off the spoon edge, you are done. If it is still runny, boil off more water. Be aware that there is a fine line between too watery and too dry. If you overcook the sap, it will crystalize into a solid upon cooling. This is fine, if you’re trying to make maple candy, but most people prefer syrup.

After hours and hours of boiling, you may get a tired of watching your cauldron bubble, but don’t give in to the temptation to wander off and work on some other project. If you leave your boiling pot unattended and the liquid level gets too low, it’s very possible to scorch your tree syrup. I know, I’ve done just that. The over-cooking of sugary substances has given the world some tasty treats (like toffee, for example). But if this over-cooking goes a shade too far, you’ll end up with burnt syrup that has a harsh and bitter flavor. Don’t waste hours of tapping, collecting and boiling. Watch your sap like a hawk as you near the end of the boiling process. If the scent changes and/or the color darkens quickly, pull the boiling pot off of the heat immediately. You’ll thank me for it.

Know your maple syrup numbers

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