When they reach a certain age, some men buy a fast sports car or motorcycle, trade in their middle-aged spouse for a trophy wife, or quit their job and join a rock band. My husband has opted instead for homespun hobbies that tap into his inner provider. Like his affinity for berry picking in the summer, in late winter/early spring, my hubby is in full-blown maple-sugaring mode. In Pamplona, Spain, they have the Running of the Bulls– here in Armonk, New York, we have The Running of the Sap.
Inspired a few seasons ago by neighbors who had tapped their trees and enjoyed maple syrup for months after, my husband became intrigued– and soon obsessed– with collecting sap daily and turning it into homemade maple syrup. Always a fan of Sunday morning pancakes, this new hobby gave him both a purpose as well as something tangible to show for his efforts. Not to mention the environmental benefits of this sustainable practice (my take, not his.) For those not familiar with maple sugaring, turning sap into syrup is a simple, five-step process.
Step 1– Identify a sugar maple tree
This is easy in summer, as the maple leaf is familiar to all. However, in winter– when we are in syrup mode– maple trees can be identified only by bark. The bark is “furrowed,” characterized by deep asymmetrical grooves that are closely spaced between each plate of bark.
Step 2– Tap your maple tree and collect the sap
Drill a 7/16” hole into the tree. The hole should tilt slightly downward. Then insert a spile (a small wooden or metal peg used to control the flow of liquid) into the hole. Hammer gently on the spile until it is secure. If the weather is warm enough, the sap– which is indistinguishable from water– will begin to flow immediately. The sap drips into a bucket or container that hangs from the spile. My husband uses a sturdy ‘sap bag’ with an airtight closure.
Step 3– Transfer sap from buckets to storage containers
A single maple tree will generate as much as 2.5 gallons of sap per day. Pour the sap from the bucket or bag directly into the storage container. Any food-grade container may be used to store the liquid. My husband uses large drink coolers. Store the sap at 38°F or colder. If there is still snow on the ground, keep your containers outside, packed in snow. You can also store them in your refrigerator, or for longer-term storage, in your freezer. Sap will spoil quickly if not kept cold.
Step 4– Process sap into maple syrup
When you are ready to make maple syrup, pour the sap into a large pot (a “lobster” pot works well) until it is ¾ full. Boil the sap until it reduces down to ¼ – ½ the depth of the pot, then add more sap. It takes 40 parts sap to make 1 part maple syrup (10 gallons of sap yields 1 quart syrup,) so it can be a long process. Once the sap has boiled down and taken on an amber hue, transfer it to a smaller pot. Continue to boil the sap until it takes on the consistency of syrup. Dip a spoon into the liquid; syrup will “stick” to the spoon as it runs off.
Step 5– Bottle your syrup and enjoy!
Sterilize your glass bottles and caps in boiling water, then fill them with syrup. Now you can enjoy the fruits of your labor!
Speaking of labor, if you’ve read this far, you are probably wondering why someone would dedicate so much time and effort to a pastime with such a low yield. (Just 1-2 quarts of syrup for two weeks of daily labor.) I posed this question to my husband, and here was his response:
“I enjoy the feeling of living off the land. I’m taking a natural substance from a tree and making it into something tangible that my family and I can eat. And, when I consider the people who typically make maple syrup, I think of quiet, rural areas in Maine and Vermont. I love the rural countryside. However, we live in a densely populated area. When I make maple syrup– or pick wild raspberries like I do in the summer– I get a taste of authentic, country living.”
In short, maple sugaring has proven to be a fun hobby that provides my husband with a strong sense of pride, accomplishment and personal satisfaction. Plus, our entire family gets to reap the benefits, as his homemade syrup is delicious!