Outdoor Handbook

Originally published in Seasonal Guide, January 10, 2013
Tap that tree
Sugar maples offer syrup worth the effort

Maple tree tapping

Maple tree tapping on the Peninsula.

Penobscot Bay Press file photo

by Jessica Brophy

Fresh maple syrup on hot pancakes—who could ask for more? Those with older homes are likely to have sugar maples planted on the property—vestiges of homesteaders of the past.

These sugar maples offer brilliant fall foliage, and in the spring can be tapped for sap, which can be boiled down into maple syrup.

Coastal Maine is not the ideal location for large-scale maple syrup operations, as sugar maples don’t grow in the wild here and the mild temperatures on the coast are hit-and-miss for sap production, according to Carding Brook Farms co-owner Jen Schroth.

On the upside, she continued, most sugar maples were planted along driveways—which means they are easily accessible—and were planted a century ago—which means they produce a lot of sap per tap. Carding Brook Farms taps trees on its property and on the properties of 10 different landowners, primarily in the Brooklin and Sargentville area, to gather sap.

While it’s not difficult to tap trees or boil down sap into the syrup, Schroth said it’s a very time consuming process. Forty gallons of sap are required to create one gallon of maple syrup. The good news, though, is the production time for maple syrup comes during a slow period for the farm. In a good year, the farm can produce 60 to 75 gallons of syrup. Last year’s warm and mild winter meant the farm only produced about 25 gallons.

Trees are tapped during the first thaws, typically in late February and early March. The ideal weather is warming above freezing during the day, and below freezing at night. Schroth said she and farm co-owner Jonathan Ellsworth do all of the tapping by hand, into buckets.

“Big operations will have tubing, where the sap can run into the sap house from the trees,” said Schroth. “Here that’s not an option.”

Instead, Schroth and Ellsworth gather gallons of sap and bring them to their small sap house. Syrup is made by boiling sap until it reduces to a thick consistency. Schroth warns against trying to boil the sap inside. “It’s very steamy, and will take the wallpaper right off the walls.”

Schroth says an outdoor open fire will work fine for a small operation, boiling down sap into syrup. She said it can be dangerous to step away from the boiling sap—if not watched carefully, the sap can boil off completely and burn to the pan.

Schroth said the rule of thumb is about one quart of syrup per tap. “And like anything else, it tastes better if you make it yourself,” she said.

For more information about maple syrup production in Maine, visit extension.umaine.edu and click on “all topics.”