I’m a Sap for Maples – My Annual Tapping Tradition

The whir of a power drill temporarily drowned out the rat-tat-tatting of a nearby woodpecker the other morning as a half-inch steel bit bored through silvery, striated bark and penetrated the trunk of a majestic maple behind our house.

No sooner had I extracted the bit, pulling with it about a quarter-cup of sawdust, than clear sap began dripping from the 2-inch-deep hole as if from a faucet.

Early on in my syrup-production career I would have raced to pound in a spile and attach a collection jug, desperate not to waste a single drop of precious liquid. But now that I’ve been performing this ritual for about a decade I realize a few drops – heck, even a few cups – isn’t going to add much to the final product, considering it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. In fact, I let the sap drip for a minute or so before hammering in the spile, or metal spout, to flush out any residual sawdust and debris from the drilling.

The flow of sap never ceases to thrill me, a reaffirmation of life, that somehow we – the maples and I – have made it through another winter.

To be sure other harbingers serve to remind us of the vernal approach – I saw a robin last week, and it won’t be long before skunk cabbage and crocuses, along with, I hope, the garlic I planted last fall, poke through once-frozen soil.

But for me, nothing resonates more powerfully than the flow of sap.

Loyal readers may recall I’ve written about my maple mania in the past, and Day videographer Peter Huoppi chronicled the process from tapping to boiling a couple years ago, so I won’t dwell on details other than to point out it’s bonehead simple but fairly labor-intensive. This is why a gallon of Grade A Vermont syrup will set you back more than $50 – nearly as much as a bottle of Chivas Regal.

And that price is for syrup made by a commercial producer who installs thousands of taps connected to plastic tubing and who use reverse-osmosis machines, large-scale vaporizers and other sophisticated equipment – a far cry from my amateur operation.

A few years ago I half-jokingly computed the price of a gallon of my syrup at about $932.87, based on the hours of toil required to produce such a meager output, even if I “paid” myself minimum wage.

First there’s the tapping of 20-odd trees, which takes a couple hours, depending on snow conditions. This year, thanks to recent rains that washed away most of the drifts, only a few inches of crusty ice remain in shaded areas, but two years ago I had to tramp around in snowshoes to install taps and collect sap.

I also expedited the operation by reluctantly giving up on a hand drill and resorting to a battery-powered model.

Collecting sap also takes several hours, again, depending not just on snow depth but the temperature. Ideally, a combination of sub-freezing nights and warm days causes the sap to rise and fall, and I hope I timed it right this year.

I store the sap outside in 32-gallon barrels that I keep packed in snow to avoid spoilage. Nothing tastes worse than syrup made from fermented sap, or bud sap drawn late in the season that contains too much starch and not enough sugar.

Last, of course, there’s the boiling. I stockpile a mound of brush and firewood next to a stone fire pit I constructed, upon which I’ve placed a section of wrought iron fencing salvaged from the dump that I use as a grate.

Then I pour the sap into a couple of five-gallon pots and begin boiling, adding fresh sap as it evaporates. Last year I made one significant improvement – a metal screen that allows steam to escape but prevents ashes from falling into the pots.

Depending on how much sap I’ve collected – some years as much as 60 gallons; others fewer than 20 – the boiling takes eight to 12 hours. Usually some friends come by to help toss sticks onto the fire and engage in theme-appropriate competition, including wood splitting, log-cutting using a 7-foot-long, two-person crosscut saw and my favorite, ax-throwing at a stump target.

At the end of the boiling process you have to watch the pot like a hawk, or else it instantly converts from almost-ready to unpalatable ashes in a flash. Last year I pulled the pot off the fire a nanosecond before the sap incinerated, and I miraculously wound up with an unbelievably savory concoction that tasted less like maple syrup and more like crème brulee. I doubt if I’ll ever be able to recreate it, or even try because of the high risk of losing everything.

After straining the syrup through cheesecloth, I serve it over griddle cakes cooked in a cast-iron skillet over the fire. Ambrosia.

I hope to reach this stage in about a week, and will keep you posted.

 

 

 

 

Reader Comments

MORE BLOGS

Wouldn't It Be Wonderful To Hibernate?

When I pried a rock up with a mattock the other day, rushing to finish a small retaining wall before the ground froze, I inadvertently disturbed a hibernating spotted salamander’s winter home.

Happy Days Are Here Again: Cheap Fuel And Gas-Guzzlers!

Isn’t life great?! Gas is so cheap now I can get rid of my puny, poky, fuel-efficient econobox and get behind the wheel of an auto with plenty of ponies under the hood that any American would be proud to drive, just like the good...

Siri To The Rescue!

"Siri, how much farther to the summit?"

A-hunting We Will Go

Blam! Blam! Blam!

Urban Excursions: Finding Adventure In The Big City

A brisk autumn breeze scattered crimson maple leaves that fluttered from trees lining a pond glittering in the morning sun as my friend Bob Graham and I loped along a narrow path the other morning.

My Friend The Log Splitter: Leaf Blowers Notwithstanding, Not All Machines Are Evil

After my overwhelming victory last year in a rake vs. leafblower contest I hoped I’d heard the last of those infernal, noisy, polluting contraptions — but while out for a run the other day, savoring the fall foliage, a familiar whine as...

Welcome To Steve's Lumberjack Camp

Good morning! I hope you all had a good night’s sleep, enjoyed the griddle cakes and are eager to work off those calories.

At Nayaug Canoe And Kayak Race, A Win Is A Win Is A Win — Sort Of

Race starts are notoriously adventurous — jackrabbits at the line itching to shove and elbow their way into the lead; clueless slowpokes poised for pileups; nerve-jangled competitors, fueled by surging adrenaline, chattering...

Rocks In My Head, Part 37,482

Descending New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in a blizzard some time ago, a friend and I briefly strayed from the ice-encrusted Lion Head Trail – not all that surprising considering wind-whipped snow reduced our visibility to...

Hey, Unless Your Head Is Made Of Cement, Wear A Bike Helmet!

Last Saturday was glorious, perhaps the last sunny, warm day of the season, so a couple friends and I set out for a 50-plus-mile ride on Rhode Island’s magnificent East Bay Bike Path, one of my favorite places to pedal.

How to freeze your - - - off in four easy steps

I know you’ll find this rather shocking, but all those white things in the new picture of me aren’t really snowflakes – they’re feathers from an old pillow, which we thought would be a clever way to illustrate a...

Hey, Unless Your Head Is Made Of Cement, Wear A Bike Helmet!

Last Saturday was glorious, perhaps the last sunny, warm day of the season, so a couple friends and I set out for a 50-plus-mile ride on Rhode Island’s magnificent East Bay Bike Path, one of my favorite places to pedal.

Forget San Juan Capistrano – If You Want to See Hundreds of Thousands of Swallows, Check Out the Lower Connecticut River

Like the first snowflakes of an approaching blizzard, a small flurry of tiny birds flitted across the slow-moving water of the Connecticut River earlier this week, just as the sun began to dip below the western bank in Old Saybrook.

Celebrating the Spirit of Johnny Kelley, as We Dedicate a Statue in His Memory

Participating in weekly runs with legendary marathon champion Johnny Kelley back in the 1970s was a lot like attending a religious service.