Maple syrup — the first harvest of Spring. With a few simple tools and a little bit of know-how, you too can enjoy the nectar of the gods, straight from your own backyard.
It is a cold, blustery February afternoon. The snow is crunchy underfoot, the Waterford River is still frozen, the resident ducks are huddled along the banks, bills tucked under their wings for warmth. The outdoor world still slumbers, locked in winter’s embrace. But all I can hear is are the sweet sounds of Spring approaching, months before it’s actually here. It gets closer with every ‘ping’. It’s the sound of the trees waking up, the sound of Spring approaching, as each drop falls off the spigot and into the bucket.
It’s maple syrup season!
For most of us, winter seems long. Too long. For those of us who garden, waiting for the last frost date to pass, sometimes as late as May, can be a long, agonizing time. We anxiously await spring flowers, even a burst of yellow colt’s foot, poking through the snow. Anything to break the grey monotony of late winter.
But despite the cold and the snow, the trees are already awake. Spring has already begun, deep beneath the earth. The trees are waiting for their chance. On days where the temperature slips above freezing, the sap that hides deep in the tree’s roots is starts to move upwards, moving nutrients to the tree buds so that they can burst into a canopy of leaves once the freeze ends. Maple syrup season is the first harvest of the springtime, a forager’s delight after a cold winter. All you need to do is drill a 3/8 inch hole into a maple tree, fit a spigot (called a spile) into the hole, hang a bucket from the hook, and wait.
Maple sap, which can be collected from any species of maple tree, is mostly water. It is faintly sweet, and contains many nutrients and minerals like manganese, zinc, iron, and calcium, which are used by the tree to make its leaves. Maple water, as it’s called, is delicious straight from the tree — a nice, refreshing treat on mornings as we do our rounds, collecting sap.
Long ago, it was drank by both indigenous peoples and early pioneers, since it replenished many nutrients missing from a pre-modern winter diet. But maple water has become a bit of a fad recently — Canada’s answer to the Coconut Water trend. It’s is even for sale at local retailers. But you don’t need to buy it — just get a tap and collect some yourself. With 51 per cent of the trees in St John’s being listed as maples in a ‘Tree census’ carried out a few years ago, odds are the closest maple is just a stone’s throw away.
There’s no magic trick to making maple syrup – the tree has already done almost all the work for us. All that’s needed is to concentrate the sap after it has been collected. This is as easy as boiling it down over a stove, although you may want to do this outdoors since it’s a rather steamy affair. The old fashioned way is to boil it down over a fire, but those of us who live in St John’s will probably just end up boiling it down on a portable electric cooktop, out on the patio.
Maple sap flows intermittently, running on days when the temperature hovers around zero or warmer, and flowing freely when the sun shines or when there is a large iceberg nearby. You’ll need to empty your buckets two or three times a week. We do our ‘boil downs’ once a week, usually on Sunday, and the maple syrup we make from tapping 15 or so trees gives us several litres of maple syrup, enough to use all year round. Newfoundland maple syrup, in my somewhat biased opinion, is the best in the world.
You can tap any type of maple, but bigger is better. The ‘sugar maple’ is preferred, since less of the sap is required to make a liter of syrup, but the syrup tastes the same regardless of the type of maple you tap.
To tap your own maple trees, you only need a few basic things: a cordless drill for the tap hole, a bucket, a 3/8 inch drill bit, a simple felt or paper filter to filter your finished syrup (even a coffee filter will do) and a special metal spigot, called a spile. Metal spiles can be bought online on places like eBay for around a dollar each. Some retailers like Home Hardware can order them in for you. A word of advice, though: the plastic spiles that are commonly used nowadays do not hold up to our blustery Newfoundland winds and often blow right out of the trees! Use metal.
A tap hole is drilled, about a metre above the snowline. Choose a tree that is at least 10 inches in diameter at its thickest part. The tap has a little hook for your bucket. Any old food grade bucket will do the trick, but clean it out properly first. You don’t want a faint hint of salt beef in your syrup! Hang the bucket, and simply wait for it to fill up, one drip at a time. The sap gets collected a few times a week and stored in a cool place until it’s time to boil down.
The trick to making maple syrup is to evaporate enough of the water for the remainder to thicken just right. Too little and the syrup will be too watery, too much and you’ll inadvertently make maple taffy — tasty as can be, but a royal pain to clean up after. The magic number for maple syrup is to boil it down until it can hold a steady temperature of seven degrees above boiling point. At sea level, where water boils at 100 degrees Celcius, this means boiling the syrup until it sits at 107 degrees. This usually takes a few hours.
A properly maintained maple grove will produce every year; there are groves in Quebec that have been tapped for over 300 years! The sap collecting process takes a little less than five per cent of the tree’s sap reserves, leaving over 95 per cent for the tree to use for its own growth, so the collection has minimal impact on the tree’s health. It can be compared to donating blood — the tree simply makes more sap to cover the extracted amount.
Tap holes will heal over as the summer progresses, usually filling in completely before winter. If you tap the same tree consecutively, ensure next year’s tap hole is at least six inches away from previous tap holes. Also, please ensure your maple trees have not been treated with pesticide plugs. These are generally evident, as tap holes similar to the ones you’ll be drilling will be visible at the base of the tree. These plugs distribute their pesticides using the trees own sap, so this is not something you want in your maple syrup.
Maple season tends to run from late February until early April. This can shift depending on the weather, but the rule of thumb we have developed during our six years making maple syrup is to wait for consecutive two above-freezing days, from late February onwards. Once that happens, off we go.
This year we will once again present a “maple tapping workshop” at Pippy Park for those who want some hands-on experience before tapping their own trees. Despite the cold, wet weather, last year’s event—the first of its kind here in St John’s—drew over 120 attendees. This event is free of charge and there will be basic maple tapping kits for sale for those interested in making their own maple syrup. Last year’s event offered hot chocolate to warm up your bones, and we even poured out maple taffy in the fresh snow, which, very predictably, was a huge hit with the kids. Maybe we’ll see you there.
Our goal is to see buckets hanging from trees throughout the city and province! This delicious hobby can provide a fun, outdoor family activity during an otherwise uneventful time of year. Give it a try — it may just have you looking forward to February.
Join Steve and Lisa McBride for the Tapable Trees Free Workshop this Tuesday, Feb. 24, at Pippy Park in St. John’s. Due to popular demand, a second workshop has been added for Tuesday afternoon. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to register for the 3 p.m. session, or to be placed on a wait list for the 6 p.m. session.
For more detailed info on making your own maple syrup, read Steve and Lisa’s DIY Maple Syrup article posted on Root Cellars Rock’s website in 2012. They also recently started a Facebook group called Backyard Farming & Homesteading NL.