Back at the end of September, I wrote about our time spent marking the sugar maples on our property. It was a stroke of genius on our part, since it is REALLY difficult to determine tree types when they are completely devoid of leaves.
In the spring, identification would be impossible for us, but in the autumn, all we had to do was walk around with some twine and our eyes and look for the telltale sugar maple leaf.
Once located, we would measure the circumfrence of each tree to determine whether it was a candidate for tapping.
We looked for trees that were around 20″ in diameter (preferably larger) that had a well-exposed south-facing spot to hang a bucket.
There are some basic rules of thumb about which trees to use and how large they should be. These rules vary wildly based on who you ask. A website dedicated to this process states that the tree MUST have AT LEAST an 18″ diameter. Some Vermont friends say that the circumfrence isn’t as important as the location and the height at which you tap. The 85-year old guy up the road who’s been tapping maples since World War II says that the tree needs to lean slightly to the right, have an odd number of branches, and be partial to Frank Sinatra.
Since it seemed obvious to us that the larger trees would be less affected by tapping and would likely offer up the largest yield, we opted for the fattest trees we could find. Once found, we marked each with a length of twine and waited.
In the meantime, we gathered our supplies.
Tapping doesn’t require much in the way of equipment. We had a stack of food-grade buckets (that’s important) that we rescued from the back of our local bakery, spiles and hooks that we purchased at our local feed store, a hand drill, a hammer, and some aluminum foil (for covering the buckets – the rescue operation failed to recover lids).
And then we waited for the weather conditions to be just right.
Just-right weather conditions seem to be the one utterly agreed-upon portion of this process no matter who you ask. The flow of sap won’t start until after a hard freeze (of which we’ve had more than our share this winter) followed by sunny days with temperatures in the 40s. Because we are going to see low- to mid-40s temperatures all this week, we knew it was imperative to get the taps in immediately.
Since we only had eight buckets and we were much too lazy to seek others elsewhere, we could only tap eight trees. My guess is that this will be PLENTY for a first-time collection and I will be complaining to anyone who will listen about how tired I am of boiling the sap already. In the meantime, however, I’m feeling bummed that we have four unused spile sets sitting in the wooden bowl on the counter; taunting me and calling me lazy.
At each sugar maple, we measured a spot about three feet from the ground on the south-facing side of the tree. Charlie the dog helped by repeatedly dropping his frozen tennis ball into the snow and then digging it out. Sophie the teenager helped by holding the drill and other supplies while Dave sank the spiles and hung the buckets.
The drilled hole needs to be about 1 1/2″ to 2″ deep and at a slight upward angle to help facilitate a gravity-assisted sap flow. The spile is then tapped into the hole with a hammer and the bucket is then hung from the hook attached to the spile.
The finished product looks like someone stapled bake sale leftovers to our tree trunks, but that sort of sloppiness is fairly par-for-the-course for us.
Sure, we wanted those lovely metal buckets with the attached lovely lids that hang in a picturesque manner off the trees like something out of a hand-crafted Christmas card, but that shit costs A LOT of money and this set-up was practically free, so bake sale remnants it is.
From the time the flow starts, we’ve got about three or four weeks to collect the sap. We’ll have to check the buckets daily and empty them as needed. Sap can be stored for up to a week, but not longer (it is as perishable as milk, after all) by packing it in snow and storing it in the shade. Unless you have a crazy-big refrigerator with room for nothing but sap, the snow-pack method is an excellent alternative.
Since we don’t have an evaporator, we’ll store the sap in large food-grade buckets, or possibly even a trough, until we are ready to start the boiling process. Once that starts, we are likely to be tethered to our make-shift sap boiling setup for several weeks.
But there are worse places to be tethered.