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Beginner Maple Syrup Maker Video Series
Former Extension Iron County Agriculture Educator Darrin Kimbler created a 4-part series of informational videos designed for the beginner maple syrup maker. The series cover all steps from identifying maple trees to bottling your syrup.
For all other information regarding developing maple syrup production and culture in and around Iron County, Wisconsin, be sure to visit our Tapping Into Our Maple Syrup Identity page.
The first and most important activity when deciding to make maple syrup is correctly identifying maple trees in your sugar bush. It very disappointing after slogging through the cold to tap trees only to find out later that they were the wrong trees. Properly identifying maples during tapping season is more challenging because you do not have leaves on the trees to help with identification. This video shows the distinguishing characteristics of the three main maple species in Wisconsin used in making maple syrup. It also helps you to identify two other tree species that could confuse you in the woods at tapping time.
Maple identification begins with looking at branching patterns. Maples have an opposite branching pattern. That means that there are two branches or leaves attached to the stem opposite of each other. You should look at several branches to make sure that damage has not broken one off. Other trees have an opposite pattern so you should next look at additional identifying characters. If it is the growing season, you can use leaves to help confirm identity of maples. The leaves of the three main maple species used for making syrup are all simple and lobed. Simple leaves have only one blade per leaf. Other oppositely branched trees have compound leaves, which have multiple blades per leaf. Since maples do not have leaves on during the tapping season, learning bark patterns will make for more accurate and faster identification. Using bark as an identifier is as much an art as a science. The video below walks you through what to look for in bark patterns of maples.
As with most things, accurate identification of maples for making maple syrup requires lots of practice. For beginners to maple identification practicing during the growing season gives you the most options for proper identification. Spend time watching this video and get out and practice before the tapping season so that you are ready for the big day. Remember that even experts make mistakes on tree identification.
It is important to gather your gear for maple syrup making well before the sugaring season begins. This is the second video in a series of four designed for the beginner maple syrup maker. In this video, we discuss the different sizes and types of taps available to use when tapping your maple trees. Additionally, we talk about the different types of containers used for collecting maple sap. We stress the importance of cleanliness of your taps and containers to have a longer and safer maple-sugaring season. Having the proper gear makes for an easier and more enjoyable maple-sugaring season. Remember a washed out kitty litter or paint bucket is not food grade and should not be part of your maple sap collection gear.
Just in time for maple sugaring season, we have the third video in our Beginner Maple Syrup Maker Series. In this video, you will learn about the proper tools for tapping trees. You will also learn about the appropriate size of trees to tap as well as the number of taps you can put in a tree for a sustainable sugarbush. We will demonstrate how to correctly drill a hole and place spouts into the tree. Finally, we discuss the sap collection process and the frequency of collection from your taps.
Having the right tools, in good condition, are important for a successful tapping season. A sharp drill bit is key to creating clean tap holes that will seal around the spout of better collection of sap.
When selecting the trees for tapping, it is important that you select healthy maple trees that are at least 10 inches in diameter at chest height so that you do not harm the trees and reduce the sustainability of your sugarbush. Every time you drill a hole in your tree, it creates a long wound around that hole that will not conduct sap for several years. It is important that you have trees that are large enough to be able to place your taps around the tree over the years to reduce harm the tree and to insure that you can tap into healthy wood to get sap.
After selecting the trees and location on the tree to tap, you should drill the hole with your drill at its slowest setting. You want to drill at a slightly upward angle with a smooth consistent speed and motion. A depth mark or guide on your bit will insure that you drill to the proper depth of 1.5 to 2 inches. If you must clean, wood chips out of the hole use a clean metal wire. It its important that you do not use your breath to blow out the hole because that can introduce bacteria into the tap whose growth can clog the hole.
As you seat your spout into the hole, it is important that you tap in the spout with gentle hammering. If you hammer too hard or try to force the spout in too far, you risk damaging your spout and cracking the tree that will allow sap to leak around the spout. When the spout is fully seated in the hole, you should hear a change in the sound of your hammering.
When sap is flowing, it is important to regularly collect and process the sap to avoid spoilage. As the season progresses and the days warm, the chance of spoilage is increased. If you cannot process your sap immediately and need to store it, store it in a cool shady location. If your sap is cloudy and has an “off” aroma at the tap, it is an indication that the trees are budding out and the sugaring season is over.
Our final video in our Beginner Maple Syrup Maker Series is now available. In this video, you will learn about the different methods and containers you can use to cook your syrup. It is important that you select an outdoor space to cook your sap. You will need to boil off about 95% of the water to make syrup. That is a lot of steam in your kitchen. You should avoid boiling vessels that are not food grade such as galvanized containers.
As the water boils from your sap, you can continue to add sap in small amounts to your cooking container until you have used all of your sap or the container is mostly full of almost finished syrup. Once your syrup starts to thicken you should start checking its doneness with a hydrometer. Safe self-stable maple syrup has a hot syrup reading between 66 and 67% on your hydrometer. To prevent over cooking your syrup, you move your almost-finished syrup (64-65%) to a stovetop for a more controlled finishing.
Filtering your finished syrup will eliminate sediment called sugar sand for your bottled syrup. Sugar sand is safe but may create a visually unappealing final product. It is import to only filter and bottle hot syrup (190-195o) to insure ease and safety during the process.
When you are ready to bottle it is important to only use food-grade containers with sealable lids for safe storage of your syrup. If you bottle your syrup at the 66-67% point, it is safe to store at room temperature in a well-sealed bottle or jar. Labeling you jars is a fun way to display your product for yourself and as gifts for friends and family. If you plan to sell some of your syrup remember to check with you state food safety agency for rules on labeling.