We have several beautiful sugar maples spread out around our property, and last year we decided to give maple syrup a go for the first time. I have to admit, it was a little overwhelming to look at all the equipment choices and recommendations out there. And an evaporator to boil down the syrup? The prohibitive cost absolutely put that one out of the question. (Here’s an inexpensive “hobby” evaporator if you’re wondering.)
This post is not meant to be a complete guide to making maple syrup- it is merely a checklist for supplies, as well as inspiration for some thrifty ways to get started sugaring. The links to equipment in this post are affiliate links.
So, what does a newbie really need to get started sugaring- without investing in hundreds of dollars in equipment?
First off, you need the right kind of maple tree! Be sure to properly identify your trees. Not all maples are sugar maples, and not all maples produce sap that is suitable for syrup making. Check here and here for some information on maple identification.
Beyond the trees, of course, you will need some sort of basic equipment, including:
- Something with which to tap the tree
- A method of channeling the sap
- Someplace to collect the sap
- Someplace to boil the sap
- A candy thermometer (optional)
- Something with which to filter the syrup
- Something to store the syrup
We bought this small maple syrup tapping kit to start out. It included ten spiles (the part that goes into the tree) and ten lengths of two foot long tubing to channel the sap into your collection container. This fit the need for tapping and channeling the sap. (Now, ten taps isn’t a ton if you’re looking to start a business, but it’s enough to make enough syrup for your family’s use!)
Now, for the containers for all that sap- because you will get a LOT!- we went cheap and saved up our plastic gallon milk jugs for a couple months. (You can buy sap-specific buckets, but one must make do with what one has!) The hubby cut holes in the lids and ran the tubing into the jugs. He also tied the jugs with some string from the handle to the spile to prevent the weight of the sap from pulling the jug away from its lid.
We also had a lidded five gallon bucket on hand to dump all the sap into when the milk jugs got full. I sometimes had to empty the milk jugs twice a day when the sap was flowing well. The sap in the five gallon bucket was either kept cold in the snow overnight, or put straight to the boil.
And how exactly do you boil sap without an evaporator? Well, we did something we probably shouldn’t have done- we boiled it on our stove top in a large turkey roasting pan. If you know anything about maple sap, you know that it is largely comprised of water. And all that water has to go somewhere… like the walls. And your ceiling. And windows. Until you’re living in an indoor rainforest. Not so good for the house.
So, we made the best of it. We opened all the doors and windows. (Very refreshing on an early March day!) We turned on all the fans. We put a couple of large crockpots outside and turned them on high without the lids to help evaporate some of the water before it came inside to be finished.
Was it a perfect scenario? No. Did it work? Yes! I would do it again in a pinch, but this year we are going to try to make our own outdoor evaporator out of an old wood stove. For some ideas on homemade evaporators, try this You Tube search result page, or this article from Mother Earth News.
Though not completely necessary, you will find a candy thermometer useful in determining when your maple syrup is finished. The syrup should be cooked until it is 7 degrees above boiling (219 F for you people who live at a normal altitude!), and not more or less. Too little cooking produces thin, watery syrup, and too much cooking produces maple candy or maple sugar- or just burnt maple blackness. After several batches, you begin to recognize when the syrup is at the right consistency without the thermometer, but having it does make things a little more foolproof.
You have to filter your syrup somehow to get all the “sugar sand” out of it. We just used a reusable coffee filter. Easy enough!
Now, you will need something to store all this lovely syrup in. You can buy fancy shaped bottles or plastic syrup bottles with specific lids. But as for me, I still love me my good old Ball canning jars. The best part? If the jars are clean and hot, you can simply ladle the hot syrup into them with 1/4″ head space, and they seal themselves. No processing necessary!
For an investment of about $45 plus electricity usage, we produced over four gallons of syrup last year from tapping only six trees. Considering that one gallon of syrup costs about $40 at cheapest, that’s a great savings! It’s been enough for us to eat pancakes on weekends and bake with maple syrup for the whole year, as well as to give syrup as gifts for friends and family.
As you can see, it doesn’t take a lot to get started in a small sugaring operation at home! When we get things rolling again this spring, I will be sure to write a “how to” post on home maple syrup production. (And I will add pictures! We didn’t take any last year, unfortunately.) Enjoy your tapping!
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