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How to tap your own maple syrup

How to tap your own maple syrup

Seed to Table Maple Syrup

In Missouri, sugar maple tree sap typically flows best on sunny days throughout the month of February, making it the best time of year to tap sugar maple trees.

Sugar maple trees are native to the northeastern U.S. and Canada, and they are the symbolic tree from which maple sap is extracted and used to produce maple syrup. In the Midwest, sugar maple tree sap flows freely in the winter and is easily collected when nighttime temperatures dip below freezing and daytime temperatures are just above. In Missouri, the sap typically flows best on sunny days throughout the month of February, making it the best time of year to tap sugar maple trees. If you happen to have a sugar maple tree in your own backyard, you’re in luck. For a small batch of maple syrup, one large tree with a few taps will produce all you need.

Tapping maple trees is somewhat of a complex process that, by comparison, only yields a small amount of syrup. Yet until you have seen such a complex process through – whether by making your own cheese, wine, maple syrup, etc. – it might not hold as much reverence. There is a lot of knowledge, love and dedication that goes into making artisan food products, especially maple syrup.

My husband, Eric, holds a significant admiration for the plant kingdom, and views the art of growing and sourcing food as a labor of love. From the fields as a farmer and through the forests as a naturalist, he truly respects and honors the seed-to-table process. We are fortunate enough to live on a farm in Godfrey, Illinois, that has several old-growth sugar maple trees. When we first moved to the farm, Eric used reclaimed wood and materials to build a small sugar shack with a roof. Each winter, he braves the elements and sets up spiles – spouts that are inserted into trees for tapping – and buckets to catch the sap.

For a home-tapping project, there are many great books and online tutorials that cover how to tackle maple syrup production. There are different methods to follow, but after much research and trial and error, this was the best and most affordable method for us. We have found that if you can, it’s best to tap at least three trees, as sap just flows better from some trees. As a general rule, the tree should be at least 12 inches in diameter to be the right age for tapping. With large trees, measuring no fewer than 25 inches in diameter, you may place up to three spiles in various places around the tree.

Keep in mind that it takes 40 gallons of maple sap to produce 1 gallon of maple syrup. The sugar concentration is very low in the sap. Once the sap is boiled down, most of the water evaporates and the sugar concentration significantly increases, yielding the thick, sweet liquid we enjoy drizzling over waffles and pancakes, or use to bake treats. Home evaporation can be done using a copper kettle over a fire and then finished on the stove top. During large-scale maple syrup production, the sap is collected from hundreds of trees, stored in a sap tank and evaporated using a large-scale evaporator. Evaporating water from the sap is what actually turns the sap into syrup.

Crystal Stevens is a farmer at La Vista CSA Farm on the bluffs of the Mississippi River in Godfrey, Illinois, where she farms with her husband, Eric. They have two children. Crystal is an advocate of integrating creativity into sustainability through writing, art, photojournalism and seed-to-table cooking. Find more of her work at, which she created to launch her forthcoming book, Grow Create Inspire.

Maple Syrup Tapping 101

| Tapping the Tree | 1. If you plan to collect sap multiple times a day, you may place the spile onto the south-facing side of the tree. If you only have time to collect the sap once a day, you may want to place the sap on the north-facing side of the tree. The best place to tap is below a healthy limb or above a vigorous root. 2. Measure 2½ inches on a drill bit and mark it with a piece of tape. This will serve as a template to mark the depth to drill into the tree. Drilling into the tree does not harm it unless you drill more than 3 inches in. 3. Based on the description in the first step, find a spot on the tree to drill into using a drill bit relative to size of your spile. 4. Angle the drill up at about a 10 degree angle so that the spile will be facing downward to promote sap flow into bucket, which will hang from the spile. 5. The hole you drill needs to be at least 2 inches deep, but no more than 3 inches deep. 6. Hammer the spile snugly into the drilled hole, taking care to ensure the spile is firmly set in place. 7. Hang a 2½-gallon bucket from the hook on the spile. 8. Hammer a nail into the piece of scrap metal about 6 inches above the spile to act as a makeshift roof.

| Collecting the Sap | On a sunny winter day, sap could fill a 2½-gallon bucket in one afternoon. It’s best to collect the sap into a clean 5-gallon bucket twice a day to prevent sap from overflowing. Store 5-gallon buckets with lids outdoors in a cool place if temperatures stay below 38°F. If temperatures are warmer, you can store sap in the refrigerator. Since 40 gallons of sap yields 1 gallon of syrup, we typically collect and boil sap several times throughout the span of 5 or 6 weeks.

| Boiling the Sap | Build a fire in a designated fire pit at the base of a copper-kettle stand. The fire will need to be going all day to boil sap down, at least 10 hours. Pour all sap collected into a 10-gallon copper kettle and keep the fire stoked. Boil the sap until ¾ of its contents have evaporated. Using a mesh strainer, strain sap into a large stainless steel pot. Transfer pot to kitchen stovetop and continue to boil down. Repeat the process with the remaining 5-gallon buckets. It may take several hours to finish evaporating the water necessary to create syrup on your stove top; use a candy thermometer to monitor the temperature. The sap turns to syrup when the temperature reaches 219°F. The sugar concentration should be at 66 percent. Test your maple syrup for doneness by pouring it on a white plate; if it pours to the consistency of maple syrup, it’s likely ready. Once finished boiling, remove from heat. Strain syrup through a fine-mesh strainer. Pour syrup into several Mason jars and place lids on immediately. Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 months.


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