We were in PA this weekend at my childhood home to visit my parents and celebrate my grandpa’s 95th birthday. We got into all sorts of things with cousins and aunts and uncles, but one of my favorite things we did was help my dad make maple syrup. Sometime a long time ago, when my brother and I were kids, we decided to make homemade maple syrup. We lived in the woods and had ample maple trees all around and Dad had made syrup as a kid with his dad so we were set to start tapping our trees.
Sap begins to really flow in the late winter when the days are above freezing but the nights are still cold. We usually tap trees in early to mid February and pull the taps when the trees begin to bloom (about now this year in PA). Of course, sap will flow after that but one risks taking too much from the trees I suppose. Maybe we just got too tired to go on at that point. Anyhow, to tap our trees, we would blunt the end of 1/2 inch pvc pipe, drill a hole slightly upward 1.5 or so inches into the tree and pound the tap (aka the pipe) into the hole in the tree. It sounds pretty ugly I guess, pounding a pipe into a tree, but I promise it isn’t that bad or hard on the tree.
Sap will begin to drip from the pipe almost instantly. Now when my brother and I were collecting the sap, we had 25 gallon barrels strapped to the side of the tree to collect it. Well, maybe they weren’t that big but I truly believe some were 5 gallon pails. I guess it makes sense when one has child labor to do the work. My brother and I finally unionized. It got pretty ugly there for awhile…you may have heard of the maple wars of 1983…yeah, that was us. But we won and now my dad uses 1 gallon milk jugs that he ties to the trees.
We used to save the sap (it was always cool there…like a giant refrigerator) until the weekends. Every Saturday, we would build an enormous and very hot fire and start the sap cooking. Dad had a 55 gallon drum that we set on its side. The lengthwise edge was cut off so we had a large trough in which to boil the sap. I don’t remember how much we had in a typical week but we always had the barrel very nearly full and we added more as the sap cooked down. If I recall correctly, 50-60 gallons of sap will cook down into about 1 gallon of syrup. Wood cooked syrup has a definite maple, but somewhat smokey taste that is pretty awesome. We saved it in mason jars and it typically lasted all year.
My Dad still taps a few trees each year though, now that the child labor is gone, they are closer to the house and far fewer in number. He also cooks his sap in a turkey frier over a propane flame. They used to heat the house with wood too…my brother and I chopped a powerful lot of wood growing up…funny how that changed too. Anyhow, propane fired syrup has a much more mellow taste and the maple flavor is very pleasant (and wholly unlike the artificial stuff you buy in the stores).