Before Sugaring Season
I can’t believe it is almost time for sugaring season. My husband is the one who grew up in the US’s #1 maple syrup producing state (i.e., Vermont) and he did some sugaring on his own as a kid. But once we purchased our home nearly a decade ago, we always intended to tap the meager 2 sugar maples on our property. It didn’t actually happen until 2021, when our daughter was old enough to participate. It started off as just something fun and science-y to show her, but it turned into a great little hobby for both of us. I’m so excited to tap for the second year and take what we learned the first time around into this year.
Like I said, I didn’t grow up sugaring and my husband picked it up when he was in high school as a hobby (despite living on a ton of acres, it wasn’t something his parents did before he started). I got to experience my first sugaring when I went to visit him during a college spring break week some March many, many years ago. Little did I know, it was peak sugaring season. He spent that week boiling outside from sun-up to sun-down and then a little longer indoors after dark.
I learned that they boiled in March because the days were “warm” (think above freezing to mid-40s F) and the nights were “cold” (below freezing). This got the sap running. You knew it was sugaring season by looking at the snow around the base of the tree; if it started to pull away from the trunk, it was time to get those taps in and boil. As we all know, the climate is changing and winters aren’t quite so predictable as they once were. We also live a little bit further south of where he grew up, plus we are not at the same altitude and we are river-valley adjacent. That means our winters can be more variable in temperature. Not something we really paid attention to until it was our first sugaring season!
Our First Season
In 2021, we just went by the rule of thumb that we knew from sugaring in Vermont. Come March, it’s time to boil, so we didn’t put our taps in until the beginning of March. That was our first mistake. Whether it’s the changing climate or our geography (likely a combination of both!), we were already behind the 8 ball by the time we got started.
As is typical in the Capital Region of New York, we experience a bit of a deep freeze at the end of January/beginning of February followed by a bit of a thaw. This time of year is also very tumultuous and can result in quite a few Nor’easters. But it can also mean that sugaring could start in February. By the time we drilled our first taps, we had already seen a few of those warm days/cold nights that indicate sugaring season is upon us.
We did well for our first year – just shy of a gallon of sap from only 2 trees – but we probably could have had more if we drilled at the start of February. Ultimately, we probably had about 10-14 days of sugaring before the nights stopped dipping below freezing on a daily basis.
This year, we made a point to start as early as we could in February. After a ridiculously cold stretch where the worst day saw a high of 11 degrees, we pulled out the buckets and tapped the trees the first day above 32 degrees F – February 5th!
Now this is far from a how-to post on sugaring. I’m certainly no expert, but I do highly recommend getting a sugaring book if you want to give it a go yourself. We use the North American Maple Syrup Producers Manual by the Ohio State University Extension in Cooperation with the North American Maple Syrup Council. I have no idea where this book came from, but a quick Google search showed me that there are lots of options out there and I’m sure your local library can also help!
Last year, we ended up with more taps than buckets; my father-in-law had procured these buckets in late spring 2021 and this was the random assortment that he had obtained. We purchased a fourth bucket from Leader Evaporator Company. Tapping the trees is a fun activity for kids, so we also invited the neighbor kids down to use the power drill and hammer to hang the buckets. They have all claimed their buckets and regularly debate whose bucket is producing more.
That Escalated Quickly!
Looking ahead at the weather on tapping day, I knew we would probably start to see some sap, but I expected boiling wouldn’t happen until either the following weekend or even the one after that. Yikes was I wrong! It was the perfect sugaring weather. Even when it was cloudy, the days were above freezing and definitely below at night. On Wednesday, it was particularly sunny and around 40 degrees. I had a sneaking suspicion that the trees would be producing well that day, especially our big tree with the two taps.
By 2pm that day I had at least a gallon in each of those two buckets and a bit less in the third – I didn’t check on the random other maple we tapped this year. Sure enough, I had 2.5 gallons. Normally I wouldn’t think we’d need to boil right away. The storage bucket is a 5 gallon one from Home Depot and we stuff it in the snow in a shady part of the lawn to act as an outdoor refrigerator during the week. The problem? There was rain forecasted for Thursday and the day and night temps were expected to stay in the 40s. My natural refrigerator was going to melt and if I didn’t boil, I was also going to have more than 5 gallons of sap on my hands with nowhere to put it.
Here We Go
I can now say it is the start of our sugaring season. I had plans to host a maple open house-type day with our friends in late March, but at this rate we will be done by then. I was so unprepared, I had to use the propane from our grill and I used some large 16″ tiles to create a wind buffer because it was also quite windy.
As you can see, my thrown together boiler worked out just fine but I do want to put together something that blocks the wind a bit better. I started out with my sap in a turkey roasting pan, to get as much surface area exposed for evaporation.
After I went through the entire bucket of sap, I then reduced down to a large canning pot where I sat and watched (essentially) water boil for another hour. Now, it’s been a year and I forgot how the sap can stall out temperature-wise right before it turns to syrup. So I made the mistake of bringing it into the house to finish at around 215 degrees Fahrenheit. It boiled indoors for another HOUR. You might think, at least you were inside. But the steam that comes off of the pot has sugar in in it and I was not interested in coating the kitchen in a thin layer of maple syrup.
I was also hoping to use the hydrometer to determine when the sap had finally become syrup, but we didn’t have the skinny cup to actually use the hydrometer. I quickly placed an order for one, but we were going to have to rely on the thermometer for this one. In the end, we were able to boil down 2.5 gallons to just shy of a pint. Got some lovely sugar sand in there, too. This is just some crystallization from the boiling process. While we do filter the syrup at a couple of different stages, it just happens sometimes. While aesthetically not desirable when selling commercially, we aren’t fussy and we will still enjoy this tasty Vermont gravy.