How to Make Maple Syrup

How to Make Maple Syrup

The art of making Maple Syrup is relatively simple. All one must do is tap a maple tree using a drill and spout, collect the sap, and boil it down. The process of making Maple Syrup was first established by the indigenous population of North America.  Later this practice was adopted and refined by early European settlers who quickly realized the benefits of it.  Later on the manufacturing and consumption of Maple Syrup gained popularity with northern abolitionists who saw it as a great alternative to molasses, which was primarily made with the use of slave labor.  Today the maple syrup industry produces hundreds of millions of dollars worth of maple syrup. Most of which is collected and refined in Canada.

Maple syrup is made from sap that is extracted from maple trees. The maple tree species that are most commonly used for extracting sap are sugar maple, red maple, and black maple. In cold climates maple trees will store starch in their trunks before the impending winter months. During the late winter and early spring the starch is converted into sugar and rises with the sap. This sugar rich sap is typically extracted from the trees by a method called “tapping.”  Tapping is done by drilling holes into the trunk and then fitting the hole with either a metal or wooden spout. The sap will collect in the hole and run out the spout where it’s collected. The sap is then prepossessed by being heated up to the point where the excess water in the sap evaporates leaving behind the concentrated syrup.

There are several methods used in the production of maple syrup. They differ in complexity. There are many different recipes that often require the addition of sugar (most commonly brown sugar). However, every production method used requires the collection of maple sap, as well as the act of heating the sap in order to expel excess water. Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)  is the most common maple species that is “tapped” for the production of maple syrup due to the fact that it has a higher sugar content than other maple species.

Sugar Making in Montreal, October 1852

Maple trees are most commonly “tapped” in the Spring; primarily during the time of year when temperatures rise above freezing during the day and drop below freezing at night. This fluctuation in temperature is what causes so much sap flow while the trees are still dormant. Warmer temperatures cause pressure to build up in the tree, subsequently causing sap to flow out of the tapped hole. Subsequently, when the temperature drops below freezing, the pressure changes in the tree leading to water being taken in from the tree’s roots. These pressure developments coupled with other factors  result in a higher concentration of sugar being present in the tree (as opposed to other times of year).

Though tapping maple trees might be perceived as harmful to the tree, in reality it has little to no long term effects. Suitable trees should measure at least 10 to 12 inches in diameter. Provided that they are healthy and of suitable size,  no damage will result from tapping. Furthermore, tapping only removes around 10% of the tree’s sugar, which is insignificant enough to cause any lasting damage.

A healthy maple tree of suitable size can produce anywhere from a quart to a few gallons of sap per day. After collecting sap, it is advisable that one filter it in order to remove any insects or debrie.  One should also convert their collected sap into maple syrup as soon as possible. This is due to the fact that the high sugar content of the sap can be a great breeding ground for bacteria. Though heating the sap should kill any lingering bacteria, waiting too long can cause the bacteria to produce off flavors.

Depending on the sugar content of sap, the production of 1 gallon of Maple Syrup will require around 40 gallon of sap. Equivalently, 10 gallons of sap will only produce around one quart of Maple Syrup. The sap produced by maple trees consists of approximately 2% sugar and 98% water, as opposed to the final product which is approximately made up of 67% sugar and 33% water. This of course means that a lot of water needs to be  boiled off. Although there are many ways by which this is achieved, the main method of home production is to simply pour the sap into a large pot and let it boil down until a suitable amount of water has been removed.

Maple syrup must legally contain at least 66% sugar in order to be sold and marketed as being maple syrup. Optimum sugar content is between 66.5% to 67.5%. This is obviously a very small percentage range (1 percent). As such, sap must be boiled down carefully in order to insure that it’s neither too thick, nor to thin. If the Maple Syrup is too thick, crystals will begin to form.  Conversely, if the Maple Syrup is too  thin, it may taste sour or have other off flavors.

Measuring Sugar Content: 

There are generally two ways to measure sugar content. The first and simplest is with the use of a simple thermometer. Sap will generally reach a sugar content of 67% when its temperature reaches 219ºF. Once the sap has reach 219ºF, it should be quickly removed from the heat source and allowed to cool.


A more common and precise method for measuring the sugar content is with the use of a hydrometer(click here to see/buy). A hydrometer is a simple instrument that is used to measure the relative density of a liquid. It’s most commonly used to measure the either the sugar or alcohol content of liquid. The method behind the use of a hydrometer is rather simple: the more dense a liquid is, the more sugar it contains. As such, the higher the sugar content, the less the hydrometer will sink. Vice-versa; the less sugar there is the deeper it will sink.

A hydrometer is long peace of glass that is weighted on one end and has markings running up its stem. Generally each marking represents 1% difference. These markings are also usually labeled with the percentage they represent. All on must do when using a hydrometer is to fill a tall/narrow glass with syrup and then place the hydrometer in the syrup allowing it to float freely. Whatever marking/label the hydrometer settles on is the percentage of sugar in the syrup. It’s also worth noting that temperature can effect the hydrometers reading. Typically hydrometers are calibrated to a specific temperature. As such, in order to get an accurate reading, one should wait until the syrup has cooled down to the correct temperature before testing it.


1 Comment

  • Brian H Roth says:

    This really doesn’t say much. The most critical piece of equipment needed for this process is the evaporator pan. It CANNOT be galvanized as this imparts a vanilla flavor to the syrup. Not good! These used to be made of TIN, but just try to find anything made of TIN ( which is an ELEMENT like carbon, nitrogen, etc) . You WON’T find it. Now these pans are made of stainless steel which is far more expensive than tin EVER was. Cast iron kettles were also used as in the old accompanying drawing. It must NOT be done INSIDE or you will have to WASH YOUR CEILING afterwards. Spiles should be easy enough to find and clean plastic buckets will do though you might find sap buckets on sale with your spiles. They go together. It is good to have a forty gallon barrel for your sap or maybe TWO. At 40/1 you will get one gallon of syrup from boiling down 40 gallons of sap. You can RAISE the sugar content of your sap in the barrel by freezing five gallon pails of sap overnight and throwing away the chunk of ice that you find in the morning as the sugar will not freeze but the water in the sap WILL. When we boiled sap we got THREE GALLONS of syrup from our 45 gallon barrel of sap and a few odd five gallon pails the day we boiled it. One last thing: you MUST have a candy thermometer to keep track of the temperature. Once all the water boils away the temperature of your syrup rises IMEDIATELY and WILL BURN if it isn’t removed RIGFHT AWAY. You need to be watching at this time.

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