Maple season is here again! My dad has had a busy maple syrup business on our farm for over a decade now, so this muddy winter/spring season is maple-making time for us!
Though it’s second nature to my family, we get lots of questions about how to make maple syrup. Unfortunate souls who’ve been served Aunt Jemima all their lives often don’t even know what real syrup tastes like! I’ve put together a series on how we produce syrup on a small business scale so you can learn more about this popular Catskills hobby.
The Maple Tree
Maple syrup is made from maple tree sap. In early spring each year (mostly late February through March), the maple trees begin circulating their sap back through their trunk and branches. This reignites their life cycle and eventually leads to leaves and another happy year of growth for the tree.
During the first spring thaws, we “tap” the trees to get some of the early sap out for our syrup production. The trees are large and live for over a hundred years in good conditions. The small amount of sap that’s taken each year doesn’t harm them.
Sap & Syrup
Sap is mostly water, but it has just a hint of maple flavor. Once tapped from the tree and boiled down heavily, the concentrated maple sap thickens and becomes sweet and flavorful maple syrup!
If you’ve ever wondered, yes, you can drink sap on its own. We like to hang a bucket on the tree next to our house and drink from it through the season. It has a very light flavor with a unique taste you can only get this time of year. It’s kept nice and cold by the ice chunks that form in the bucket overnight.
Apparently, innovative entrepreneurs have started selling bottled sap as some sort of health drink… you never know what city people will fall for. Besides, is it really drinking sap if it isn’t tinged with the metal taste of the bucket?
Nationally, it takes an average of 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. For our trees, it’s usually more like 60 to one. We usually tap around 3,000 trees each spring, and depending on the year, we can make anywhere from 400 to 700 gallons of finished syrup.
The duration of maple season and how many gallons of syrup we make depends on many things (such as what pieces of equipment break down and require hours-long road trips to replace). The most important factor every year is weather, though. Sap runs best and produces the most syrup when temperatures are in the 40s during the day and below freezing at night. Having sun helps too!
It’s not just the daily weather that counts. A winter with too many warm days makes for a weak sap year, since trees require consistent cold in winter to get ready for spring. Based on this past winter, with many highs in the 20s and snowy weather throughout January and February, we hope to have a good year.
That said, it could all end quickly. If spring comes early and we get too much warm weather, the sap will turn bad. Anything warmer than mid-40s during the day with nights that don’t freeze will slow down sap flow and cause spring to come early. Once the trees begin to bud and become red-tinged, the sap starts to taste bad and the end of the maple season comes. Usually this happens during late March or early April.
The Sap Bush
Unlike the Rush song, there is no contest between the oaks and these maples. Our maple trees reign supreme over their forest, and there are hundreds of them sprawled out over several acres down the road from us.
A large collection of maple trees like this is called a sap bush, and having one makes tapping and gathering much easier. Ours is twice as useful since it’s on the side of a hill.
We have an older sap bush on the east side, with ancient trees that my grandfather remembers tapping with his family. These trees are all around 100 years old. Younger trees have grown up on the west side and filled in. They’re mostly 30-60 years old.
My dad went out to tap the sap bush for the first time this year today. It’s actually pretty late – usually we start tapping in late January to prepare for any early runs during a warm spell, but the weather has stayed cold and has kept the sap from running early like it usually does.
We’ll cover tapping in next week’s post!