A young sugar maker, collecting sap.
The weather is just right – freezing nights and thawing days – and you’ve been checking your buckets dutifully. One day, your small sugar stand rings with the plink-plank-plunk of sap dripping from your maple trees into your buckets. It’s time to collect and store your sap in preparation for your first boil! Before you get started, here are some things we’ve learned in our years of DIY maple syrup making.
First of all, do not be put off by sugar makers that insist that sap MUST be boiled off immediately upon coming out of the tree. In big, commercial operations, this is, in fact, the practice, and may be perfectly true in that context. It’s also a truism of the wise-old-saying variety here in New England. However, having had thousands of conversations with DIY maple syrup makers, we can say with great confidence that this is NOT common practice among us backyard, homestead, hobby farm, smallest of small-scale people. Instead, we collect sap daily, and store it in food-safe containers in a naturally occurring refrigerator. What’s a “naturally occurring refrigerator,” you ask? In our climate, here in central Vermont, snow banks on the north side of a building work great. In the southern part of sugar country where snow cover is not guaranteed, people use shallow streams to keep their sap storage containers cool. Cold spaces in garages and barns can work well in any climate; think root-cellar. Our experience has been that sap can be saved for a week to ten days by such methods with absolutely no adverse effects at all! (Still nervous? Check out the Sugar Cube RO with a built in UV filter that eliminates yeast and bacteria for longer hobby-scale storage!)
Having said that, daily collection is still a good idea! In order to keep your sap cool and fresh, however, you should collect sap every day and get it into refrigerated storage. This will ensure that it’s not sitting at elevated temperatures (for example, in a metal bucket in the sun) for extended periods of time. So pick a time that works for you, and make it a part of your daily schedule to check and empty your buckets.
If you are a morning collector, you may find some ice in your buckets; feel free to chuck it! Do not fear, this ice has little to no sugar content, so you will actually give yourself a head-start by ridding yourself of it tree-side. In fact, Native Americans – the original backyard maple sugar makers – used this method to speed up the process. So it is officially legit!
You may also find twigs and bugs in your sap; use cheesecloth or the equivalent to filter your sap at the point of collection. And don’t be grossed out. You are going to boil this sap for a very long time. It, and you, will lose the memory of those bugs by the time that syrup hits your pancakes!
Do not hesitate to mix saps from different maple trees. This is, in fact, how it is done! Many of us DIY maple syrup makers tap red maples in addition to sugar maples. And any maple can be tapped to make syrup. Since it all tastes the same, there’s no reason to separate saps. (In fact, some of our customers mix maple and black walnut sap and make a hybrid syrup! There are many, many syruping traditions out there!)
There are several storage container options available; the important thing is to choose something that has been manufactured for food storage. Food-safe, polyethylene drums are widely available. This is what we use; two 55 gallon drums are sufficient for our 50-tap hobby. There are also food-safe liquid totes out there that are often put in use for sap storage. These are large capacity; purchasing one of these is likely to feel like overkill, but also give you room to grow if you plan to expand your operation. Online forums like Craigslist and Maple Trader are great places to check for these kinds of sap storage containers. Thinking smaller than 25 taps? Food-safe storage containers come in as small as 2 or 5 gallon! They are widely available online. Or, a local restaurant or other food vendor may be willing to give or sell you containers that would otherwise be thrown away or recycled. Several of these may be just what you need. If you have 2 gallons of storage per tap, that should be plenty. Stay away from garbage cans and run-of-the mill 5 gallon buckets and anything else not sold for food or as food safe, and you’re good to go!