When the sap starts flowing in early spring, it’s time to tap your trees for syrup. There are several types of trees including maple and walnut that can be tapped. Find out what you need to get started and make your own batch of delicious, homemade syrup.
You may also want to prune your trees before the leaf buds open.
Tapping Trees for Syrup
It’s sap time! As winter wanes and spring starts edging in, we’re finally in that perfect time of year for tapping the trees to get sap for syrup-making.
While this does produce food—sugary syrup you can use as-is or turn into fudge or candies—I consider tapping trees more of a fun project than something I’d do routinely. It’s not the most practical project and there are several logistics to think out first.
Here are a few things to consider.
It takes gallons of sap creates just one small jar of syrup.
The sap from trees is mainly water. In maple trees the ratio is approximately 40 parts water to 1 part sugar.
Before processing, we have to keep that freshly-collected sap at a cool temperature (38°F | 3°C) or lower to prevent spoiling, sometimes for many days.
Then, to create syrup, much of that water has to be boiled off at an even temperature and this can be very time-consuming. For some it’s a day-long, hands-on job.
Many hobby syrup-makers choose to start the boiling process outdoors with huge soup pots (or other food-safe containers) on a grill or over a fire pit until it’s reduced down to an amount that can be managed on a kitchen stove.
We all loved that steamy-sugary air when visiting sugar shacks (maple syrup farms) as kids where they have huge, enclosed cauldrons and other equipment to make the job much easier. It’s quite another thing to contend with it in your home.
This said, if you can manage it, it’s a really fun and interesting project for kids and/or homeschoolers. Or people like me who just enjoy trying stuff like this.
You will also have to be flexible on your timing because sap collection depends entirely on spring temperature swings (low to high to low, over and over again). It may take a couple of weeks to go through the entire process. You might get a bucket full of sap one day but nothing more for days until temperatures swing again. And all this time you need to keep what you have collected chilled.
These instructions are intended to provide a basic overview. Please research safe selection of trees (age and size) and proper food handling practices before starting.
Types of Trees to Tap
Opinions vary but, in general, you want trees that are 40+ years old, at least a foot (12″) in diameter, and in good health. Some syrup producers give the trees a rest every other year to let the previous tap holes heal or, at minimum, avoid tapping the same vertical line two years in a row.
- Sugar maple (a favorite because of their high sugar content)
- Red maple
- Silver maple
- Box elder
Related: How to Grow Near Walnut Trees
How Much Sap Do I Need?
- This varies by tree type, but generally sugar maple tree sap has a 40:1 ratio, which means you need 40 liters/quarts of sap to produce 1 liter/quart of syrup. That’s a lot of boiling off to do!
- I’m tapping a maple tree as well as a walnut tree. The walnut tree will probably have a 60:1 ratio.
- A healthy tree may provide approximately 6 to 10 gallons of sap per tap (22 to 37 liters) which could provide 2 to 5 cups of syrup. Which is why this is just for fun and so expense in stores!
Tree Tapping Supplies
- Sap spouts / spiles . There are lots of styles to choose from the old-fashioned metal ones like mine to the newer plastic types.
1 per tree (12-18″ diameter); larger trees may accommodate more (up to 3 taps for 32″ diameter).
- Sap bucket with hook (or any other food safe container you can hang from the spout).
I like any container that’s translucent so I can tell at a distance that there is sap inside.
You can also get tree tapping starter kits at Amazon. although it’s cheaper to make your own and just buy the spouts.
- Lid for sap bucket.
- Electric drill with wood drill bit (I used a 3/8″ bit to match the size of my spiles).
- Hammer to tap the spout into the tree.
- Large food grade pail with lid (for storing sap until you are ready to boil it–within 7 days).
- Filters for cleaning sap (I use a colander with a paper coffee filter in it).
- Equipment for boiling down the sap into syrup (giant pot or pan, outdoor grill, candy or digital thermometer, pot holders, canning equipment if storing syrup long term).
Perfect Time to Tap
- The late days of winter and early spring are the time to tap the trees.
- Watch the forecast and get ready when the daytime temperature is above freezing (40-50°F | 4-10°C is optimum) but the temperature still dips below freezing at night.
- After a cold night, the warmer daytime temps cause the sap to rise and flow (and gradually fill your sap buckets).
- Here in Ontario, we know it’s time when the snow is melting but there’s still several weeks before the trees start to bud.
1Drill the Tree
Gather all your supplies (sap spouts/spiles, sap buckets, drill, and hammer).
- Drill a 2″ hole on a slight angle (upward) in a south-facing part of the tree above a big root (if possible).
- Pick a spot at waist height from the ground. This makes it easy to access the sap buckets.
- Gently tap the spout into the hole with a hammer.
Yours might come with a sap bucket hook that should be added before hammering.
- Insert the spout so it’s firmly in place but not so firm that you can’t get it out later.
3Hang the Sap Bucket
- Many spouts come with hangers that fit right on the sap bucket. Otherwise you can rig up something with whatever food safe container you are using.
- It’s advisable to add a lid to the bucket to prevent debris from getting in the sap.
- You can also buy starter kits for tapping several trees.
4Collect the Sap
I love the phenology (signs and signals that nature provides during seasonal changes) at this time of year.
I can often tell from the sound of the birds calling and the amount of sun shining whether my sap buckets will be filling quite quickly or slowly.
The warmth that makes the birds active definitely means the sap is flowing.
It takes about 2-3 good days to fill the bucket. On a warm day, it will flow at a constant drip.
5Watch Your Sap Levels
- Check each day to see how much sap you have. You don’t want it to overflow from the bucket.
6Filter and Store Your Sap
- As my buckets fill, I pour them out into a larger storage pail.
- As you can see in the photo (above), I use a very fancy setup for filtering the sap.
I use the large strainer to hold everything in place: a coffee filter is placed in the colander and the sap is poured into the storage pail through the filter.
- Please research proper food handling and storage practices to make the best choices. The sap can be stored for just under 7 days and needs to be kept at 38°F (3°C ) or colder.
I place the storage pail at the north side of the house in the snow with a tight lid on the container. Another option is to put the pails in a chest freezer if you have one.
7Boil Sap into Syrup
How long this takes depends entirely on your setup and how much sap you are boiling down. There are very detailed instructions online and in books but this will give you a brief overview.
In general, the sap has to boil off the most of its water, reducing down to the sugar and some water (= syrup).
1) Boil the whole thing down or,
2) Freeze the sap, thaw it half way, keep the liquid (which has most of the sugar), and discard the remaining ice. Re-freeze the liquid, thaw again half way, discard ice. This is repeated until there’s a reasonable quantity to boil down.
A big, wide pot or pan is ideal, so there’s plenty of heating surface and room for the steam to come off.
Sometimes the sap will foam up and overflow, so a deeper container may be desirable.
There’s a pivotal time that occurs when the sap finally reaches 7 degrees above boiling point (boiling point varies depending on your elevation above sea level).
This is where many people say they look away for a few minutes and suddenly find everything has burned (syrup and pot!) so be on the lookout.
If your boiling point is 212° F (100°C), the syrup (now a golden brown) will be ready when the temperature reaches 219°F (104°C) (use a digital thermometer). At this point you have to remove the syrup from the heat to avoid burning.
Enjoy your syrup right away, on pancakes, in cooking, or baking (maple fudge), or follow proper canning procedures for safe, longer term food storage.
This year I may combine my maple and walnut syrups for a whole new taste.
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