Sweet Science: Making Maple Syrup

March is maple syrup season in Traverse City, and we’ve brought together information from different sources about the year’s first agricultural crop. A special thanks to Jim Sorbie, a number of Creative Commons photographers and TJ & Odin Brown and eatdrinkTC’s Landen Finkel for the photos!

Michigan ranks 6th nationally in the production of maple syrup with an average yearly production of about 148,000 gallons of syrup and an economic contribution of about $2.5 million annually. The Michigan Maple Syrup Association notes that maple syrup production is the state’s oldest agricultural enterprise. It’s fat-free, about 50 calories per tablespoon and packed with calcium, iron and over 50 anti-oxidants. Even better, with a little bit of work and a small investment, you can make it yourself!

Buckets on the Trees by Jim Sorbie

Buckets on the Trees by Jim Sorbie

While several types of trees including walnut and birch can be tapped for syrup, the sugar maple is the unquestioned syrup leader.  As the sugar maple is Michigan’s most abundant tree, that works well for us. While the technology has changed, the process remains the same as it has for thousands of years in Michigan.

TJ & Odin drill the hole

TJ & Odin drill the hole

You begin by drilling a hole into a sugar maple tree about 3″ deep into the maple tree. It’s recommended that the tree be 10″ in diameter or more, and that the hole be at least 4′ off the ground and 10″ from last year’s tap hole. It’s important that your drill bit be a little smaller than the tap for a snug fit. Don’t go any deeper than the length of your tap, as the deeper you go the more chance you can harm the tree!

Maple Syrup Spile, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Maple Syrup Spile, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

The mechanism used to collect the sap from a tree hasn’t changed much in centuries. You use a tap or “spile” – a small tube with a spout that channels the dripping maple sap into the collecting bucket. Native Americans in our area would use wooden tubes or channels (click for a look at this from Michigan in Pictures) while today’s commercial producers often use plastic tubing that funnels the sap to central collection locations.

Landen hammers the tap

Landen hammers the tap

Once you have your hole, gently hammer the tap in until it fits tightly and hang your bucket.

Dripping Sap by Jim Sorbie

Dripping Sap, photo by Jim Sorbie

As temperatures rise above freezing,  positive pressure develops in the tree and pushes sap out the tap hole. When the temperature falls back below freezing, negative pressure creates suction that draws water into the tree through the roots, replenishing the sap in the tree and setting it up to flow again during the next warm period. Many modern syrup operations use plastic tubing to collect the sap, but small producers and home hobbyists gather the sap from the buckets one or more times daily.

Richard Olds of Olds Brothers Maple Syrup in Kingsley supplies syrup to Northwestern Michigan College, the Grand Traverse Resort, Leelanau Schools and many other places. You can find their syrup on shelves all across the region including online through Sleeping Bear Farms. Regarding the 2014 maple syrup season he says, “Things are looking pretty cold so far. We’re hoping it will start running this week – we’re definitely ready for it.” Richard adds that it doesn’t really matter how cold the winter is, just the weather is when the sap starts to run. “Sap runs the best between 34 and 44 degrees. If it takes all day to get to 34, the window of opportunity gets pretty short and if it gets really hot all the sudden like two years ago, we’re not getting much at all.”

Sap in the Bucket by Trish P

Sap in the Bucket by Trish P

A tip for you is that fresh sap is one of the most delicious natural beverages you can find. It’s slightly sweet with a subtle maple flavor, so be sure to taste some if you collect it!

The sap is collected one or more times a day depending on the flow and should be stored out of light and as cold as possible. It keeps for 3-5 days or more and will turn cloudy and produce a more bitter syrup as it goes bad.

Simmering Syrup by Craig's Obsession

Simmering Syrup by Craig’s Obsession

Once you have collected enough sap, boil it down on the stove or a large pan over a fire. We recommend doing it over a fire outside, transferring inside for the final part of the boil if necessary to keep from burning the syrup. In addition to great flavor, it’s an incredible way to spend a spring day! If you’re doing it inside, be sure you have good venting for the steam and use stainless steel if possible. Maintain a good, rolling boil and continue to add sap as it boils down.

Sap to Syrup M. Rehemtuall for QUOI Media Group

Sap to Syrup M. Rehemtuall for QUOI Media Group

It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup, so it’s definitely a labor and time-intensive process. There are several companies that sell maple syrup equipment including Thunder Bay Maple Supply in Posen.

Maple Syrup Popsicle by Jamie W

Maple Syrup Popsicle by Jamie W

You can make maple syrup rock candy by pouring a little hot syrup into the snow and collecting on a popsicle stick as shown in Jamie’s photo.

A Gallon of Liquid Gold, by Cathy Stanley-Erickson

A Gallon of Liquid Gold, by Cathy Stanley-Erickson

You can make the syrup darker or lighter depending on your taste. When you are finished, filter the syrup through cloth and either bottle and cap the syrup to refrigerate and use within 2 months or can the syrup using standard canning methods.

The whole process ends when either the temperatures stop falling below freezing or the tree begins to bud, a process that makes the sap bitter.

The University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library has a great video from (we’re guessing) the 1940s that tells the story making maple syrup. Several years ago, our friend Scott Allman visited Joe & Bob Gibbs at the Mayfield Sugar Bush just south of Traverse City for a look at the process. Enjoy!