Growing up in the suburbs of Hartford, I always thought Sugar Bush was a ski resort. Since moving back, several friends have made the effort to set me straight. A sugar bush is a cluster of maple trees suitable for tapping. And here’s the kicker: we have sugar bush right here on the farm! All of the lovely trees behind the house are a part of it.
Years ago, the road ran much closer to the house, and the driveway ran steeply up the hill instead of meandering from further up the road. Maple trees were planted on either side of the old drive in two straight rows running down to the old forge building which may have doubled as a sugar shack, where the sap would have been boiled and reduced to syrup.
Last autumn, I had a funny plan of having a big sugar boil–we’d collect the sap for a full day, then stand around and drink hot cocoa while boiling down the syrup over a bonfire. I asked for tapping equipment (spiles, buckets, and a big pan) for Christmas, none of which appeared under the tree. But it turned out to be just fine–no expensive equipment is required for tapping sap!
YouTube is such a useful tool. I found a couple of videos on tapping trees using simple items from Home Depot. I used brass reducer nipples–1/2″ to 3/8″, a couple of drill bits to match, 3/8″ ID clear plastic tubing, and a couple of orange Homer buckets with lids.
Step 1: Wait for the sap to start running. You want cold nights (below freezing) and warm days (above 45).
Step 2: Measure the tree using your hands. A healthy tree can take one tap per 10 hand-widths around the circumference. In my case, each tree could take 2-3 taps.
Step 3: Drill and tap on the south side of the tree. Using the smaller drill bit (3/8″), drill about 1.5″ into the tree, slightly inclining the drill so the sap will drip downwards. Don’t be alarmed if the sap begins dripping out of the hole almost immediately! With the larger bit (1/2″), drill about a half inch in. Insert the reducer into the hole and tap it in with a hammer. If it’s seated correctly, the sap should begin running out of the reducer.
Step 4: Place your bucket on the ground under the taps. Measure enough tubing to go from the tap into the bucket. If you were foresighted and bought T’s, you can run the taps all to one downward tube. If you’re me, you’ll have one tube from each tap going into the bucket. Make sure the lid secures the tubes into the bucket and keeps debris out.
Step 5: Check back the next day. If there’s ice in the bucket, toss it. Begin to boil within a few days.
The first day was pretty warm, so I thought I’d have full buckets after three days. Fortunately, the temps had dropped, so I only had a couple of gallons. That was perfect, because my pan only held a couple of gallons. Like with the Great Salt Lake, you want a lot of surface for fast evaporation.
I’d been warned not to try to boil down the sap in the house. The steam would cover every surface with stickiness. And even if you have a good vent, the inside of the vent will be coated inside with stickiness. Luckily, I have a secret weapon: a grill with a burner and a full tank of gas–LA! Put the pan on the burner and heat it to a light boil. Check back every hour or so. The reduction is somewhere between 20:1 and 30:1, depending on the lateness of the season and variety of maple tree. For me, it took about 4 hours to boil down a couple of gallons. Then I brought it inside and did the final reduction on the stove. Try not to bring it up to a rolling boil–the foam is sort of like a marshmallow: great to eat, but impossible to bottle.
Here’s the final product next to the pan that started completely full of sap. Ah, heavenly. golden nectar! I cannot wait for the next batch!