The Magic and Misadventures of Making Maple Syrup

The instant the whirring drill bit pulled free from the trunk of a maple tree behind our house the other morning a splendid stream of sap began oozing before I had a chance to pound a metal spile into the half-inch-wide hole.

“Hurry! You’re wasting it!” shouted my pal Bob Graham, who wielded the drill while I took charge of the spiles, or spout-like spigots, and collection jugs.

This was a joke, because it takes 40 gallons of sap to produce a single gallon of syrup; one or two drops of lost liquid wouldn’t yield enough for even one flapjack serving.

The flow of sap in late winter — especially at the tail end (we hope) of this relentlessly frigid, snow-filled season — is nothing short of miraculous. San Juan Capistrano may welcome swallows; Washington, D.C. celebrates cherry blossoms; we in the Northeast cheer the appearance of robins, skunk cabbage and crocuses; but I never fully embrace the impending arrival of spring until the maple sap starts running.

I’ve been making syrup as a hobby for about a decade, and loyal readers/viewers may recall this video recorded four years ago that chronicled the process:

Back then a few inches of snow covered the ground, and videographer Peter Huoppi and I donned snowshoes while I trudged from tree to tree, dragging a string of plastic jugs. By the time I got around to collecting about 50 gallons of sap and boiling it in pots over an outdoor fire a week or so later most of the snow had melted.

This year, I don’t need to remind you, has been a different story.

Drifts 3 and 4 feet high impeded our progress when Bob and I went out on the first day the temperature climbed above freezing, and even with snowshoes we repeatedly postholed knee-deep, making what should have been a fun diversion an exhausting task.

I had hoped to boil sap this weekend but the forecast isn’t cooperating. Keeping a blaze going for 10 or so hours in driving rain and sleet is neither entertaining nor productive, so, if the meteorology gods cooperate I’ll put it off until next weekend, which turns out to be right after the vernal equinox. It will be the latest I’ve ever made syrup; in past years I’ve already moved on to planting peas by then.

As of this writing about 2 feet of snow still blankets the garden and continues to confound my sap collection. Snowshoes can only keep you “afloat” for so long, and while carrying my bucket from tree to tree I’ve been breaking through every few feet. Once I almost tumbled while lugging a full bucket.

I’ve tapped about 20 trees spread out a few hundred yards apart, and have wired a gallon-sized jug to each spile. Every morning I go out and collect sap in a bucket, which I dump into a 30-gallon plastic pail next to the fire pit I’ll be using for the boiling.

I’ve taken advantage of the abundance of snow by burying the large collection pail to keep the sap refrigerated. If it sits too long before boiling the sap can ferment.

You also can only use sap collected this time of year because it is high in sugar; later in the season trees produce bud sap that winds up tasting like dish detergent if it were converted to syrup.

Speaking of the conversion process, most commercial syrup-makers employ reverse-osmosis machines and other sophisticated technologies, but I do it the old-fashioned way, boiling the sap over an open fire.

Over the years I’ve perfected the process, covering the pots with screens to keep ashes from drifting in, and later filtering the finished product. You have to watch the syrup like a hawk – if you let it boil too long it turns to cinders in a heartbeat.

The best part, of course, is the consumption. I usually make pancakes on a cast iron skillet over the same fire that I use for the boiling, and serve them with fresh syrup to friends who have helped carry wood and collect sap during the day-long festivities. Ambrosia.

Anyway, I’ll let you know how this year’s batch turned out. Right now I have to put on snowshoes and collect more sap.

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