Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Sweet Syrups

When people hear the term "tapping trees", they automatically think of Maple trees. When people hear of maple trees, they think of Vermont or Canada.  For one, there are several varieties of trees that grow throughout the U.S. that can be tapped for syrup. Self or home tapped tree sap makes the best syrups because unless you add to it, it is as pure and healthy as you can get.  When you put in the effort and reap the spoils of sap victory, you tend to feel better and appreciate more the sweet syrup. Tapping trees is fairly easy and can be done by anyone. Plus, it is a very cheap alternative to buying syrup from the store since you'll be using what nature gives you for free. The  only cost involved is the upfront cost of tapping supplies, but you easily make that money back with just one season of tapping. !

The most popular and well known variety of trees is the maple tree. There are two common species of maple trees in the U.S.:  the red maple and the sugar maple. Though the sugar maple is the primary species when it comes to tapping sap, the red maple can produce a syrup that is sweet as well.  Maple trees can be found all over the U.S. and are best known for the vivid Fall foliage. I hate to break it to you, but Vermont is not the only state where you can make maple syrup. Sorry. It's not. Surprised? Good! If you have a maple tree in your yard you can tap it, unless it's dead or a sapling of course. It doesn't matter if you live in Vermont, South Carolina, California, or Mississippi you can make your own maple syrup if you have a maple tree in your yard. However, the farther South you go, the smaller the window for tapping due to climate.

Another common variety of trees, but a surprising supplier of sweet syrup producing sap is the wait, wait......the sycamore and sweet gum trees. Both the sycamore and sweet gum tree are in the same family and are very common in the South. Sycamores tend to grow in moist well drained areas, such as near to water sources and in moist woods. They are tall and their bark is smooth, white, and has papery sheaves peeling off. Sycamores are often confused with Cottonwood trees, the the way to differentiate them is to look at the leaves. Sycamores have serrated point-lobed leaves, whereas the cottonwood has round almost heart-shaped leaves.  Sweetgums are easy to identify as well. They have a coarse dense bark and their leaves turn a deep rich purple color in the Fall. They are most easily identified by their nuts or "gumballs", golf-ball sized balls that are hollow with many holes and little spikes protruding all over the ball.

Walnuts and Hickories are also syrup-producing trees.  Cousins to each other, the walnut and hickory tree are common throughout the U.S. and usually are found on the edges of woods and forests.  Other than their most popular use of nuts, tapping these trees for sap gives them a beneficial use as well.  Hickories and walnuts are easily identified with their long multi-leaf characteristic. The syrup made from walnut trees is very rich with a strong nutty flavor.

Getting Started
If you are seriously interested in trying to tap trees yourself then there are some guidelines that you need to go by.
  1. Go out onto your property and determine what and how many trees you think you will want to tap. You want to look for healthy mature trees that do not sport any significant damage, disease, or dead sections. You also will want trees that are standing rather straight, not leaning significantly as this will make it near impossible to hang buckets.
  2. Once you have your trees picked out, you need to determine how many taps each tree can handle. Do not whatsoever put more than three taps on one tree or more than the recommended guidelines suggest below. Here is a guideline to go buy in determining that:
Diameter of 12" to 21"  =  1 tap
Diamter of 22" to 27" = 2 taps
Diameter of 28" + = 3 taps

     3.  You can buy taps at your local gardening store if they carry them, but most can be found online. I got mine off of eBay for $1 a tap.  When you buy taps, try to buy them from the same source and make sure that they are all the same size. The size of the tap will not make a difference in sap production. The taps I bought are 5/16". 
     4.  You will need to buy buckets to catch the sap. You can use anything from 5 gallon buckets and smaller to specifically-made sap collecting buckets. I have aluminum sap buckets, made specifically for tapping. Again, I got mine on eBay, 10 buckets for about $35 (not including shipping). Some buckets may come with lids, but most don't.  Bucket-specific lids are not necessary and I have done fine with just using Glad Press-n-Seal Plastic Wrap. But, your buckets will need to be covered by something, it's just up to you whether you want to spend another $50 just on lids alone. 
   5.  Once you have your tapping supplies ready you need to check your calendar.  If you live in the South, and it is early to late February, then you are right on time. Any time before or after and you need to wait.  The sap season generally runs between mid-February and late March in the South, depending on where you live. A general rule of thumb is that it has to get below freezing at night and above freezing in the day - and have been at that pattern for at least 2 weeks with no forecast of change within the immediate future. This is when the trees begin to come out of their winter hibernation and thus begin flowing sap. 
  6.  Once it's time to start tapping you need to get together everything you'll need:
Cordless Drill (or drill w/an extension cord)
Drill Bit (matches size of taps, i.e. 5/16) 
Rubber Mallet
Plastic Wrap (optional)
Masking Tape (optional)
5 gallon bucket (optional)
   7.  At each tree, choose a spot about 3 feet above the ground. You want to choose the south side and try to get above a large root.  If you have more than one tap per tree, space your taps evenly around, each one in a different facing direction (i.e. South, West, East, North). Drill a hole 2" deep slanted upwards so that the sap will drain better with gravity.
  8.  Insert your tap and using the rubber mallet, gently tap the tap into the tree until it stops. Do not force it. If your buckets are made with holes large enough to hang on the taps then go ahead and hang them. If the holes are too small to hang on the taps, then using wall panel nails, hammer the nails so that the bucket will hang directly below the tap.  Make sure that the tap spigot will drip into the bucket. If you don't, then you will lose much of the precious sap and it will be all for nothing. 
  9.  Attach your bucket's lid or if using plastic wrap, cover the top and secure with masking tape.  Stand back and watch as each day produces new treasure.

Your trees will produce different amounts of sap each day. Some days you may get just a few tablespoons, other days you will have a gallon per bucket. It all really varies according to the temperature, weather, and the tree itself.  I have found that my particular trees really like it when it is in the 30's and rains. You need to check your buckets daily because of this. You don't want any overflowing buckets!

When you have about 2 gallons of sap, you're ready to start making syrup. You can wait until you have more sap, but wait no more than three days at a time.  Sap is like milk and will spoil. If you don't have 2 gallon's worth of sap, take what you do have and purify it.  To do that, filter it twice using a fine filter (I like to use a washable coffee filter). Bring the sap to a boil and boil on high for 3 minutes. Pour the hot sap into a container and refrigerate until you have enough to continue with the syrup making process.

When making syrup, follow these instructions:

  1. Using a fine mesh filter (such as a washable coffee filter), filter out any debris that may be in the sap. Pour the filtered sap into a large pot and bring to a boil.
  1. Boil the sap until it reduces down. This process will take about 6 hours and will create lots of steam. I recommend turning your oven vent on high and even turning on a dehumidifier machine on high in your kitchen to prevent steam damage to walls and cabinets.
  2. As the sap boils down, keep filtering and pouring sap in until you have poured all of the sap in the pot. Once you have let all of your sap boil down, you are ready to can the syrup.  You know it is ready when the syrup thickens and gets really sticky when you pour a drop or two on a cold metal surface and let cool in a minute. Also, you can tell when the syrup tastes like pure sugar it's so sweet.
  1. Pour the cooked sap through a fine mesh filter again, being that this will reduce the amount of sap crystals. You will not be able to filter all of it out, being that some will be smaller than the mesh, but this is okay. It will settle at the bottom of your syrup, but it is okay to consume and will not affect the texture or flavor of the syrup.
  2. If you plan on eating your syrup immediately, you do not need to pressure seal it and can store it in any container. If you plan on waiting a while, then you will need to pressure seal your jars of syrup. This can only be done in mason jars, do not pressure seal any other container.
  3. Pressure seal your mason jars (filled with syrup to 1" of the rim) using standard pressure sealing procedures.  Use a 5 lb. pressure fitting. 

Once opened, your syrup needs to be refrigerated. If left at room temperature, it will spoil within two weeks with a mold growth. With refrigeration, it will last up to two months. This is because natural syrup does not have added preservatives like what you buy at the store. You will notice that your syrup will be thin, not thick like store-bought syrup. This is because store-bought brands add thickeners. If you like your syrup thicker, it will require more sap and longer cook-time. Just repeat the above processes until you have enough syrup that is thick enough for your tastes. But, be careful, because syrup can burn and you can also inadvertently make maple candy - so I advise you to use a candy thermometer with a guideline chart.You will also notice that there is not a strong "maple" flavor. Again, store-bought brands will add flavors made from both natural and artificial ingredients. Some store brands even add extra sugar and high fructose corn syrups.

I hope that this is a gratifying and fun experience for you! It has been for me. If I get enough yield in a season, I may put some of my syrup of for sale on my website. However, if you are interested in purchasing some fruit syrups that I make and sell online, CLICK HERE


  1. Hey! Love the article. We have made our own maple syrup for the past several years and I'm very interested in venturing into tapping some other kinds of trees this next year. Great to see someone else locally who is doing this kind of thing! Do you have any insights on what the sycamore & sweet gum syrups would taste like? Thanks!
    Knoxville, TN

    1. I have not yet had the opportunity to tap either of those since I don't have any on my property. I do know that it takes more sap than with maples because of the lower sugar content. You'd have to look it up to get the correct ratio. My guess is that sycamore syrup would have a very light flavor - maybe lighter than maple. I have a box elder in my yard, which is also in the maple family, so I am planning on tapping it next winter and seeing how it turns out.