Sticky Maple Syrup: A Step-by-Step Journey into our Organic Maple Syrup Making

There is a short window of opportunity when the daytime temperatures are above 4 degrees and nighttime temperatures fall below zero degrees, which triggers the Maple Tree to start producing sap. This occurs around the end of February to March here in Central Huron, Ontario, and it's when the official start of the Canadian Maple Syrup season begins!

This seasonal triggering event gets me outside and excited to tap the trees and start collecting sap; all naturally and without any electricity. Our maple syrup is certified organic, which means I must follow certain protocols like selecting a minimum tree size diameter larger than 10" at chest height and only using certain cleaning materials, which I’ll disclose later.

This is how we create our delicious maple syrup.

The Preparation
At the beginning of each season I'll take a walk through the sugar bush and assess the area, looking for any fallen trees that might be in the way while considering if I’ll change which trees I tapped from the previous year.

All the equipment must be sterilized before use. I’ll wash the buckets and spiles with a 1:20 ratio of bleach/water, rinse them with clean water, and then let them sit to air dry. The stainless steel evaporator is cleaned with a vinegar/water mix and then rinsed with clean water.

  Using a 5/16" wood drill bit, I carefully determine the ideal spot for each sugar maple tree. Usually, this is the south side of the tree above a large root and approximately 1.5' to 2' off the ground. If I have tapped the tree before, I'll drill the hole about 1" to the side and 12" up or down from an old hole. On a downward angle, I drill 1-1/4 to 2" max into the tree; One drill pass to make the hole and a second to remove any extra wood debris, being careful not to over-drill the hole. Then, I hammer in a 5/16 plastic spile and hang one 3-litre bucket with a lid on each spile. According to recent research, a 5/16 hole and spile is the most environmentally friendly size. It allows the tree to heal quickly.

Sap will usually start dripping immediately, and the wonderful sound of the sap hitting the bottom of the buckets can be heard throughout the sugar bush.

Each day, over two to three weeks, I'll walk around the sugar bush and collect the sap from each bucket, keeping only the clear sap. If I see any cloudiness, which starts later in the season when the sap gets too warm, I won't use it.

I empty each bucket into larger 5-litre buckets and take them to the sugar shack for storage. Yep, this is quite the workout. By watching the weather forecast, you'll start to understand when the tree sap flows more than not. Some days, I have to empty the buckets twice.

I start boiling the sap right away, emptying 4 to 5, 5-litre buckets through a cloth filter to clean out any bugs or debris and then into my wood-burning evaporator it goes. I’ll then fill the stove to the rim with wood. I use a 2x4' open pan versus a continuous-flow pan, allowing me more flexibility to add more sap to the same batch. This type of pan allows me to control the syrup's quantity and darkness.

At this capacity, it will take about 12 hours for me to add more sap to the evaporator. The more concentrated the sap, the faster it evaporates, so you really need to keep a close eye on it after the third and fourth fill up. The commonly known ratio is 40:1. That's 40 units of sap for 1 unit of maple syrup. This can vary, but it gives you a gauge to work with. And if I don't have enough sap to continue boiling, I'll cover the evaporator until I do to continue the evaporation process. Generally, I don’t want to keep the sap sitting in buckets for long. It must be boiled no more than two days after collection; otherwise, the sap will start to get cloudy and spoil.

Close to Maple Syrup
The tricky part is determining the right time to pull the syrup off the pan. The sweet smell of syrup, golden colour and thick consistency are signs that the sap is getting close to the ideal maple syrup consistency. During the boiling process, foam will collect on the top. I'll regularly remove this with a stainless steel strainer. If you boil the sap for too long, it will become too thick, not enough, and too watery. One of the traditional ways of telling when syrup is ready is to watch how it falls off a metal spoon; when it starts to stick on the edge of the spoon, you know it's ready.

Because I sell my syrup, I need to make sure it's perfect, so I'll remove it from my evaporator before it reaches a perfect maple syrup consistency. It's quite difficult to control the temperature on a wood-burning fire, so at this point, I would empty the pan, going through another round of fabric filters and into a stainless steel holding container to be finished.

I'll leave the sap in the holding container for a few days. This allows any debris to settle to the bottom of the container. Then I boil the batch over a gas stove so that I can carefully watch its temperature using a cooking thermometer and a hydrometer. A Hydrometer measures the density of the maple syrup by placing the hydrometer into a container of hot syrup until it hits the 66 Brix mark. This can take multiple tests until it's ready. If you’re making maple syrup for your own consumption, you can just use the drip method or purchase a hydrometer.

I'll continue boiling the sap on a gas stove, and at the point of perfect maple syrup, I’ll pull the batch off the stove and strain it through another set of fabric filters and into another stainless steel container. If you don't have filters, let your maple syrup sit for a few days in a covered container. The sugar sand, also called Nitre, will settle to the bottom.

Finally, I sterilize my jars by washing them with soapy water, rinsing them, and then placing them into a gas oven for 15 mins at 275 degrees Fahrenheit. I then use a large stainless steel coffee urn, which makes it easier to fill directly into the final sterilized glass jars.

And there you have it. Wonderful sweet maple syrup!

Until Next Year
Once the evening temperatures are consistently above freezing, the season is done. It's a short window of a couple of weeks however, over the last few years, we have had the season split into two periods, with an early warm-up at the end of February followed by a few weeks of freezing daytime temperatures to then warm up again in late March.

I'll remove the buckets and spiles from the trees, wash them with the bleach/water mix, and then pack them away until next year.

You're not supposed to tell anyone when you burn your pan, but it happens to me every year. I get too excited and put too much wood into the evaporator, but I don’t watch it closely. If this happens, I’ll add vinegar and water to the evaporation pan, cover it, and then let it boil. The next day, I’ll clean out the pan and start over.

I like to filter my sap as many times as possible. Usually, three times for each entire batch. During the last filtering, the most amount of Nitre is collected. This is also called sugar sand - a by-product of minerals and nutrients that collect as the excess water is boiled. Filters can get clogged up, and replacing them for every batch is needed. Some people eat this sugar sand and use it as a spread on toast, but I’m not a fan myself.

Sugar crystals. You may notice that after a few months, you start to get sugar crystals on the bottom of your bottles. This is a result of boiling for too long or too hot. If you like thicker maple syrup you’ll likely see sugar crystals on the bottom of your jars. Personally, I think it looks really cool.

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