How is Maple Syrup Made?

Maple syrup is one of nature’s best kept secrets. Most people don’t really think about where maple syrup comes from, even though it is commonly used in baking and universally enjoyed on breakfast foods like waffles and pancakes. If you’re here reading about how maple syrup is made, then maybe you’re not like most people. You’re the curious type; the type to ask important questions about the natural world like, “How can I make my own maple syrup” and, “Does maple syrup come right out of the tree that way?”

Those are great questions, so let’s shed some light on the maple sugaring process. Simply put, maple syrup is made from boiling the maple sap that’s collected from the maple tree. It’s then filtered and bottled. That’s it. Nothing is added – it is a 100% natural product.

Freshly made maple syrup

Boiling the maple sap simply evaporates some of the water content from the sap until it reduces down to liquid sugar. You can make syrup from red maple, silver maple, sugar maple and others. Walnut and birch trees can make delicious uniquely flavored syrups too! The only difference between each type is slight variation in flavor and the amount of sugar naturally found in the sap.

Sugar maple trees are arguably the best for making syrup because the sap contains a higher percentage of sugars. This means you’ll need less sap to make syrup, compared to other types of sap from other species of maples. For professional syrup producers, where the economics of syrup production are important to their bottom line, sugar maple trees are the most efficient to make syrup from due to the higher sugar content. That means less costly to evaporate, and lower quantities of sap required to make syrup. However, for the back yard enthusiast syrup maker, any maple tree available to you is your best resource!

Installing a spout and drop line tube into a maple tree

Sugar Making Equipment

To get started making your own maple syrup, you’ll first need tree taps or spouts (sometimes called spiles) to insert into your trees. A small 5/16” hole is drilled into the tree, and the spout is lightly tapped in. Next, a food grade drop line will connect to the spout and lead to a food grade sap collection container. We recommend 5-gallon food grade buckets with lids to collect sap as they’re sturdy and allow for several gallons to collect over a 12 hour period on days where sap flows really well. You can also use an empty spring water jug to collect sap with, though the buckets withstand winds and weather much better.

Check out our Kaito Ridge complete tree tapping starter kit here, starting from under $20.

The Right Time of Year

Maple sugaring season ranges from January to April depending on where you live in the country. Up north, Vermont and New Hampshire will see their sugaring season run well into April; while states further south like Connecticut and Rhode Island may see the season end by late March. You’ll know the season is over once the buds sprout on the maple tree. Once the buds sprout open, the sap will get an unpleasant leafy flavor to it and you’ll have to stop sap collection.

Perfect conditions for maple sap flow

The Right Weather for Maple Sap Flow

Maple sap flows when temperatures are at or below freezing at night, and above freezing during the day. The weather is the single most important factor in making maple syrup. Temperatures control the biological processes of the trees, including sap production and their transport of sap throughout the tree. Weather patterns vary by region and year, so the season will change each year. Some years January will be extra cold, so sap will not flow until February and March. In other years, a milder January and faster warm up in March can lead to an early start to the season, and an early end too.

Generally speaking, you want to see temperatures in the 20’s at night and around 40 during the day. That is really the sweet spot – pun intended. Sometimes temperatures will show this exact pattern for 4-5 days in a row, and you will know it’s going to be excellent for sap collection. You may get several very cold days at which point sap yield will drop, but the pattern of 20’s at night and 40 during the day will start again. Monitoring weather conditions will become second nature to you as you get more experience checking your containers for sap.

In my opinion, this is a really beautiful way to be present and connect with nature. You’ll be witnessing firsthand the tree’s processes and response to weather as it gears up its sap resources to prepare for a season of new growth.

Fresh maple sap dripping from a spout in March

Collecting and Boiling Maple Tree Sap

Maple tree sap must be kept cold and refrigerated to keep it from spoiling. It is recommended that you boil the sap collected within 24hrs. This means you’ll be collecting sap and boiling consistently throughout the weeks of the season.

For large quantities of sap, an outdoor evaporator is a good idea. Homemade or enthusiast grade evaporators can range from inexpensive (think: under $100) to upwards of $1,000 or more. Wood fired evaporators are most cost effective compared to propane units. You will go through a lot of propane tanks trying to boil sap down this way. For small quantities of syrup, you can boil at your kitchen stove from start to finish. For medium quantities of syrup, it’s a good idea to invest in an outdoor boil, and you can then finish boiling indoors on your kitchen stove. Figuring out what balance is right for you depends on how many trees you have tapped and what quantities you are boiling. This will fall into place quickly after just a few days of experience.

Filtering hot syrup through a Kaito Ridge filter kit

Filtering the Sap and Syrup

Part of the process of making maple syrup involves filtering out natural sugar sand called niter. This is natural mineral sediment that occurs in the syrup after boiling down the sap. Our tree tapping kits include filters which can be used for filtering freshly collected sap and also double as a great way to reduce the sugar sand by filtering hot syrup. For a completely clear syrup, you’ll need to also run the syrup through an additional orlon or synthetic filter element.

To learn more about our sap and syrup filtering kit, visit our online shop here.

To read our sap and syrup filtering guide, check out our post here.

The next time you pick up a bottle of maple syrup and admire the golden amber color, you’ll have a new appreciation for just how special this delicious natural food truly is.

Continue reading:

Frequently Asked Questions about Making Your Own Maple Syrup at Home

How to Make Maple Syrup

When Does Maple Sugaring Season Start?

The start of maple sugaring season varies each year depending upon two important variables: weather and location.

The season typically runs from January to April, and sap can run for several periods during these four months. In the 2017 season, warmer weather here in Connecticut started the season off early in January and ran through March. We had above average temps by the third week of February which resulted in a crazy sap flow – more than we could keep up with!

By mid-March the weather warmed up so quickly that the buds on the maple trees started to sprout, and that marked the end of the sap collection for us. Even though temperatures dropped again for a few weeks in April causing sap flow, it was not collectable because the buds had already sprouted.

Once the buds sprout, the tree begins to produce nutrients that spur leaf growth – yet it can be tasted in the sap and is not pleasant. Its nature’s way of letting us know the season is over. We refer to that as the sap tasting “buddy”.

It’s pretty common in recent years here in Connecticut to have an early start to the season, so we have been tapping in mid-January due to warm weather patterns. However, January 2018 started out with historically cold temperatures below zero, and the thaw did not come until later towards the end of the month. Timing when to tap your trees is a balance of looking at your current week of temperatures, while looking closely at the 10-day forecast in your area.

If you’re located further North such as up state New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine or in the Midwest such as Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota or Iowa¬† where weather and temperatures are typically colder, your tapping may not begin until February. The season lasts well into April up north in states like Vermont and New Hampshire as it stays colder much later into April.

States located farther South such as Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland, New Jersey and Kentucky may find that their season starts earlier and ends earlier than those of us located in New England. It would not be uncommon for people tapping in those states to end their season in mid to late March as the weather warms up and stays warm.

To read more on when to tap your maple trees, see our other posts here.

Have a specific question about when to tap maple trees in your area? You can always send us a message on Facebook and Instagram!

Need maple syrup making supplies? Visit the Kaito Ridge Shop here.