Small-time sugaring for the modern Yankee

Buckets on the sugar bush

Buckets on the sugar bush - year 1

If you have a Yankee-git-‘er-done attitude, then sugaring is definitely for you. It’s such a simple concept, but getting from points A to Z can take a myriad of paths. It’s only limit is how far outside the box you can go!

I’m something of a traditionalist, but I’m also notorious for not reading the directions. Years ago, my sister and brother-in-law had me over for Christmas dinner. Now, my family is a Christmas-Turkey family, but my brother-in-law is a roast-beef-and-Yorkshire-pudding kind of guy. So while Linda and Nick took care of everything that was boiling or roasting, I was put in charge of the Yorkshire pudding (which of course, I’d never made before). They gave me a recipe. I mixed the stated ingredients, poured the batter in the tins and stuck it in the over. Nick was horrified! Had I preheated the tins and melted the butter according to the directions? Uh…no….   ‘Oh, I forgot–you’re a Harper,’ Nick said, ‘You don’t read directions!’  Lucky for me, the puddings turned out beautifully, or I think I would have been out on the street.

Now, Yankee traditions are pretty straight forward–they exist because they work. But the Granddaddy Yankee Tradition is to try to improve on the old tradition. In other words, think outside of the box. That’s the wellspring of Yankee Ingenuity.

So here’s the concept of sugaring: tree has sap, get it out, get rid of 95% of the water. It really doesn’t matter how you get the sap out or how you reduce it, it’s all syrup in the end.

Driving around the area, one can see all sorts of tapping methods. There are all sorts of designes for spiles–the things you stick in the holes to direct the sap out of the tree. I used hose reducers with clear tubing and Homer buckets with lids: cheap, available, easy. All good things. But, they do have some drawbacks. First, the reducers easily get clogged with wood if they’re not pounded in at the same angle as the drilled hole. Second, the hoses sometimes come out of the buckets, so you lose sap. Third, full 5-gallon buckets are HEAVY!! (Just you try to carry one up a steep hill in slippers and a bathrobe…uh, wait, that’s too much information…) But, if you’re not into perfection, it works, and it’s cheap. Plus I only have five trees tapped, so collecting the contents of each bucket daily is a little like an Easter egg hunt.

Up close, it reminds me of a Borg...

Next year, I plan on tapping all of the trees. I’m already thinking about methodology. Here’s a company in Vermont that sells all sorts of sugaring equipment: .

The whole sugarbush is on a lovely incline. With the exception of the distance between the trees, it would be easy as pie to connect all the hoses and have them run into just a few–or even one–collection area. A farmer a few miles from here is collecting into a livestock trough (ugh, the bugs it must have!). My bucket-ed sap has so far been very clean, although a lone honey bee did drown on the second day. Almost made me give up sugaring, it made me so sad to lose one of my honey bees. Call me crazy, but I’ve been filling up the honey bee waterer down by the hives with sap in honor of that lone worker.

With only 5 trees, I’m generally getting 2-5 gallons of lovely sap per day, which is just about perfect for the method of reduction I’m currently using. It took a bit of trial-and-error, but I’m happy with what I have right now. Here’s a short list of the boiling trials:

Trial 1: turkey pan over two burners on the stove. Result: burnt stovetop. Oops.

Trial 2: turkey pan over single gas burner on the barbecue, then finished in a skillet on the stove. Result: 2 gallons reduced to 1/3 cup of syrup in about 6 hours. Three days of boiling, and I’m worried about having to fill up the propane tank…very expensive. Plus, one of the days it rained, so I think there was as much rain water going in as evaporation going out.

Trial 3: heavy 2-gallon pot on single stove burner (high, with ventilation fan on). Start with 5 gallons of sap, pour about 2 gallons into the pot. Boil, checking in every hour or so. At a low boil, mine evaporates 1 quart per hour. When it gets to less than 1 gallon, fill up the pot with more sap. Do that until the sap bucket is empty. When all of it is reduced down to 3/4 of a quart, then just watch it. Of course, I like to sample it, to feel how thick the syrup is on my tongue. But you should be able to see the difference in consistency just by watching it boil. The boiling action of water just looks different than syrup. It takes a ful day of boiling to reduce the 5 gallons this way. If I have to leave the house, then I just take the pot off the heat; when I get home, stick it back on the burner. No problem.

Now, next year when the entire sugarbush is tapped, the daily sap yield should be 4-5 times as great. This on-the-stove method just won’t cut it! So this year, I’ll be watching for new (and old!) boiler ideas, and also hording wood. Luckily, last October’s nor’easter has supplied a ton of downed trees, so the next sugaring purchases may have to be a pick-up truck and a chainsaw!

One last thing: sugaring is not for folks who like instant or large results. A week of small-time boiling has yielded only 1.25 liters of syrup. But if you can wait for a taste of this nector of the gods, then by all means–go tap a tree!


2 thoughts on “Small-time sugaring for the modern Yankee

  1. Mark says:

    Pickup, chainsaw, wood splitter, flat pan and some concrete blocks…
    OK, skip most of that – get a wood guy to drop off a free cord of softwood “cut to length”, helock works very well. Spend your summer and/or fall splitting with a maul. Find a bunch of concrete block no one wants and a flat pan. Then smile as the sap turns to steam… and sweetness!

  2. Joette says:

    Hi there! We’d love to share your orange bucket image in an upcoming social media project for The Home Depot. If you grant us permission please email us at We’re looking forward to hearing from you!


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