Making your own syrup is easy and fun. First you’ll need to
identify the correct trees from which you can gather some sap.
You’ll want Sugar Maples rather than the more widespread
Red Maple or other maple species, because they yield the most
sap. An examination of the leaves will easily distinguish them.
A Sugar Maple does not have notches or a serrated pattern
between the main points of the leaf, while Red Maple and
Silver Maple do. Norway Maple lacks a serrated leaf edge, but
can be separated from Sugar by the usually larger leaf, usually
7 (sometimes 5) main points rather than 3 or 5. The easiest
time to find Sugar Maples is in the fall, as Sugar Maples are
often the brightest in the forest, with a color range of green
through yellow and orange to brilliant red on the same tree.
Red Maples tend to be a muted red across the whole tree.
Without leaves, the identification is more difficult, but you can
identify maple species in winter by the shape of their buds,
with Sugar Maple having pointed buds and the others more
blunt or round.
You’ll want to gather sap during the time the trees are leafless,
so it’s best to identify and mark them when they have their
leaves. When the trees are in leaf, the sap contains chemical
compounds that create off-tasting flavors in the finished syrup.
Sap flows through the xylem, the pipe-like vascular structure
of the trees. Many of the tree species in the hardwood forest
don’t have sap flowing during the leafless cycle at all. The
few that do flow sap do so because of pressure forcing flow
through the xylem caused by temperature changes in the stems
between day and night, or pressure from the roots due to the
warming of the soil in the spring. This narrows it down to just
a few species to target. Maples are some of only a few species
that flow based on the freeze/thaw cycles.
Trees have a range of sap sugar content based primarily on their
species, but also dependent on their location, environment,
and the time of year. Sugar Maples have the highest average
sap sugar content, approximately 2-3%. At 2%, it takes about
40 to 45 liters of sap to produce 1 liter of syrup. Birch trees
have much lower sugar content to the sap, requiring 80 or
more liters to produce a liter of birch syrup.
To gather sap, you will need a drill, taps or spiles (spouts), and
a method of collecting the sap. Sap can be collected by hanging
a bucket from the tap or connecting tubing to the tap so it will
flow into a bucket. Most taps today are 5/16-inch in diameter
and designed to have less impact to the tree than older more
traditional 7/16-inch taps. A drill bit with the tap diameter is
used to drill a 2-inch deep hole at a slight upward angle and the
tap is secured in the hole by striking it gently with a hammer.
The bucket is attached, or tubing connected to direct the sap
to a bucket on the ground. It is important not to tap trees with
a diameter of less than 10 inches to avoid injury to the tree. A
20-inch tree can handle 2 taps spaced well apart and three or
four taps can be used on truly large trees. When the days are
sunny and slightly above freezing, and temperatures at night
are below freezing, that is the time to start tapping.
The flow rate varies over the season, some days having little or
no flow and other days overflowing the buckets. A large maple
can flow 5 or more gallons of sap in a day. Collect your sap
and keep it cold until it is time to boil. Sap can spoil at warm
temperatures, and it is best to boil it as soon after collection as
Once you have the sap, it is time to boil it into syrup. While
I’ve always wanted an expensive evaporator pan and stainless
steel firebox (or “arch”) to do the boil, they can be quite
expensive, easily reaching into the thousands of dollars.
I started my first batch with a propane burner and a large
stockpot. I’ve since upgraded to several stainless steel, deep,
steam-table pans sitting across concrete blocks in a U-shaped
configuration, open on one end to build and maintain a fire