How is maple syrup made?
What does it take to make maple syrup?
In late January and early February, when the weather begins to warm, we drill a small hole in a fresh new spot in each of our 14,000 maple trees and place a sterile spout inside connecting the trees to our extensive tubing system. FUN FACT: We have over 100 miles of tubing in our sugarbush, that is enough to stretch from our farmhouse to the border of Massachusetts!
When the Weather is Right
Freezing nights and warm days, usually occurring in March, make the maple sap flow from the tree. The sap is then gathered through a modern pipeline system. It flows directly from the trees into our tubing system, makes its way off the mountain into these pump stations, where then it is pumped straight to our sugarhouse and then boiled down into maple syrup. A maple tree will yield about 25 gallons of sap in an average season. FUN FACT: On a good sugaring day during peak flow, we gather around 2,000 gallons of sap per hour!
In the Woods
Although we are not using buckets anymore to gather sap each day that does not mean we are not out working in the woods eveyday. If the sap is running at least 1 or 2 people are out walking our tubing lines checking for vacuum leaks. We use a vacuum system on our tubing which doubles our production. Because the vacuum has such an effect on production we work endlessly to repair holes that occur in the tubing system. Vacuum leaks are caused by a variety of things but our main culprets are: squirrels, chipmunks, deer, woodpeckers, wind, and an occaisonal missed spout from tapping.
Raw sap from the tree averages 2% sugar. We use reverse osmosis (pumping the sap under high pressure through a very dense membrane) to remove 90% of the water and increase the sugar content to 18%. FUN FACT: Our first reverse osmosis machine was one of the first RO's imported into the United States! Thankfully we now have a newer updated R.O.
Sap to Syrup
Once the sap has gone through our reverse osmosis machines we boil the concentrated sap down from 18% sugar until sweetened to 67% sugar making it into pure Vermont maple syrup! The syrup is then filtered and heatpacked into 40 gallon stainless drums. The drums act as storage year round until we are ready to bottle the syrup into small jugs. Bottling happens once or twice a month when we a running low on sizes and grades. During bottling runs, the syrup is reheated and refiltered before it is heatpacked and sealed into our retail containers.
End of Season
When the sugaring season is over in April, the spout is removed and the hole in the maple tree begins to heal. After a couple of years, the hole is completely filled with new growth of wood. Most maple trees live to be over 150 years old. FUN FACT: Maple syrup is one of the few wild crops left on our planet!
Let's ask questions
What does tapping a tree mean ?
Tapping a maple tree is the primary process we use to gather sap. In short, we drill a hole into the trunk of a maple tree and then we hammer a small spout into the hole until it is set. The holes are drilled nearly 2 inches deep into the xylem of the tree, a layer behind the bark. The diameter of the holes can range from 1/4 inch to 7/16ths. While you can use a common wood drill bit, many sugarmakers have specialized drill bits that are designed to pull out wood shavings from the hole. Once a hole is properly drilled, we take a spout and gently hammer or tap it into the taphole until it is seated. These ‘spouts’, ‘taps’, or ‘spiles’ have a variety of names and designs. Originally made from wood, modern taps are now commonly made from nylon or polycarbonate or metal. They can be purchased in different colors or molded at different angles. Some come in two pieces or have a one way directional check valves within the design. Some have hooks to hang buckets from or barbs to attach to tubing systems.
Can you tap the same tap hole more than once or leave the taps in the trees?
Every year we have to tap our trees with a fresh tap hole and every year we ‘pull’ or remove the spouts at the end of the season. Tapping marks the beginning of the maple season. We need to drill a fresh hole every year because throughout the season the trees will essentially heal over the wounds we’ve drilled. Maple trees have the ability to ‘compartmentalize’ damage. It's a process that likely evolved as a defense mechanism to protect the tree from wounds and infection. Throughout the spring, the maple tree will wall off or compartmentalize the area around the taphole. This creates non-conductive wood or xylem, essentially scar tissue where no liquid and gas can travel through. Consequently, we don’t tap the same hole more than once. We move taps annually around the trunk of the tree to avoid hitting the damage of old tap holes. Some producers might re-ream the hole mid-season if they feel like the tap holes are healing up or ‘drying out’. We don’t do this on our farm. It’s not allowed under organic certification because it is generally harder on the trees. We’re also required to remove our spouts promptly after the season. So, we don’t leave our taps in the trees until the following year. After our last boil, we return to the woods and pull out our spouts. The sooner we remove the spouts, the longer the tree has to heal up the tap hole wound.
Can you tap other types of trees for syrup?
Maple trees have two characteristics that make them able to tap: compartmentalization and a high density xylem. Traditionally in North America, maple trees, specifically the sugar maple, have been the primary species to tap because it tends to produce the sweetest sap and the most sap. Red maple trees are also commonly tapped to make syrup. Beyond maples, you can tap other types of trees to make other types of syrups. Birch trees are often tapped to make birch syrup. The sap from a birch tree is half as sweet on average which means it can take twice as much sap to make the same amount of syrup.
How long does it take to tap the maple trees?
It depends! In a typical season, it takes 3-4 weeks to tap all of our trees here. We tend to begin tapping our trees earlier and earlier in the calendar year. Partially because of climate change and partially because of the amount of trees we tap. If we begin tapping trees in January we’re generally ready to gather, process, and boil our sap by February. If there's more snow, it takes a lot longer. Some days we are on snowshoes in waist deep snow, other times we’re cruisin’ on bare ground!
How old does a maple tree have to be to tap it?
Since we’re certified organic we have tapping guidelines in our woods that are annually inspected. The organic guidelines tend to be more conservative than the rules that the State of Vermont puts out for its current use program. We adhere to both. We won’t tap a tree until it's at least 12 inches in diameter at breast height. Diameter at breast height or DBH is a standard forestry tool for approximating a tree’s age.