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How to tap a maple tree

Within 40 steps of my house there are seven Sugar Maple trees. Big trees. Historic trees. Right now, I have four buckets hanging from three of the trees, collecting maple sap. Here’s more about how to tap a maple tree.

Why tap a maple tree?

Drink sap straight from the maple. It’s got electrolytes, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Fresh maple sap is a fantastic recovery drink post-workout (or a natural hangover cure).

Offer bottles of pure maple sap or cooked syrup at a farm stand at the end of your driveway.

Best tip ever: use maple sap right from the tree in place of water to brew lightly-sweet coffee or tea! Hot lemon water, lemonade or limeade would also be delicious made with maple sap instead of water.

I wouldn’t do this in my coffee maker because I can’t clean the natural sugar out of the lines, but it would be wonderful in a French press. We just boil the sap and drop in a tea bag.

Hey, if you have time and energy, you can boil the sap down to maple syrup. 100% pure, natural maple syrup.

The stuff you get at the diner is none of those things. Diner syrup is mostly corn syrup, flavoring and preservatives. I know it’s delicious on pancakes. It’s just not maple syrup. There’s no tree involved.

Where do tapable maple trees grow?

Maple trees grow from Canada to Tennessee and Missouri to Maine.

View a map of the maple-growing region by Lake Forest College.

You can tap some maple trees but not all. If you have one of these five maples, you can tap them:

When I told my neighbor I was going home to tap my Sugar Maples, she got so excited. She never tapped a tree before. They don’t grow well where she grew up.

She tilted her head and gave me a smile like she was watching a sappy movie (pun for fun). “Ohhhh, it’s so New-England,” she sighed.

That’s right. I am surrounded by Sugar Maples. It’s exactly the kind of thing I should share with you, no matter where you live.

How do I know it’s a maple tree?

Sure, it’s kind of hard when there are no maple leaves on it.

Search online or in an app specially designed to help you identify trees. There are even sites and apps that help you identify maple trees.

Mature Sugar Maple bark looks like this.

Twigs grow on maple branches in pairs directly across from each other. There’s a good example of this pairing along the right side of this photo.

When can I tap them?

Early March is a good time to tap, but it is possible to tap trees in mid-February. You want “warm” days and cold nights with the day time temperature to be around 40 degrees Fahrenheit/5 degrees Celsius and cold nights that fall below freezing.

Go ahead and tap your trees in February if you just want to drink the sap straight from the tree. It tastes like lightly-sweetened water. It looks like water, too; because, well, it is mostly water.

At the beginning of sugaring season, the sugar content is lower. You won’t get enough to cook into a meaningful amount of maple syrup, and it spoils after a week.

Things to consider

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Collecting maple sap is easy

Keep it simple and cheap by just drilling a hole and sticking a straw or rubber tube inside. Be sure to cover your collection bucket with a lid though. Bugs and bark fall inside. You will still have to strain or filter some debris out of your sap.

I bought this Maple Sugar Starter Kit, which came with everything in one box: buckets, lids, spiles (metal taps), drill bit, hooks, and cheesecloth for straining out the debris. I’ll include links below for the components, in case you don’t need a whole kit.

How to tap maple trees

Step one: identify a maple tree at least 18″ in diameter
Step two: drill a hole on the south or southeast side of the tree using a cordless drill (electric drill if your extension cord reaches) or a hand drill at a comfortable height. Waist-height works pretty well. Your drill bit should be almost as large as your spile/tap, and you should drill on a slight upward angle.
Step three: insert a metal spile/tap or plastic spout and tube that drains into a bucket, bottle or even a clean milk jug
Step four: cover the bucket with a lid or plastic wrap held on with tape or a tight rubber band so the wind doesn’t blow it off.
Step five: drink the sap straight from the tree or use it in place of water to make tea, iced tea or lemonade.

Cooking sap into maple syrup

If you get at least 10 gallons/40 liters of maple sap within a couple of days, you can cook it down to make maple syrup. Any less than that and it will only make a mug full of syrup, which seems hardly worth the all-day effort.

Collect and use or cook the fresh sap within a week if stored in a cold, shady spot, packed into snow. It spoils like milk, unfortunately.

How to cook maple sap into syrup

Filter your sap first to remove the bark, bugs and debris that land inside. You can use cheesecloth or maple syrup filters. You can purchase a kit for filtering your syrup, too.

Set up a place outside with plenty of fuel to keep your sap boiling for hours. I use the side burner on my grill, but a turkey fryer or maple syrup evaporator will do.

DO NOT cook maple sap in your house. As it boils for hours, it will make so much condensation that drips down your walls and ceilings, ruining them.

Pour your sap into a giant pot and boil away. You can add additional sap as it cooks down.

If you can, bring up the temperature of that fresh sap you are adding so it’s not freezing cold. I pre-boil pots on my stove and then add them to the big pot. You want to keep the pot boiling. Otherwise, it’s ok. It will just take longer to cook down into maple syrup. Long. Like a whole day.

Warning! Watch your pots. Check them frequently. If you burn the syrup, you ruin a whole batch. Yikes!

You want to cook it until it’s a brown-amber color, the color and taste of maple syrup. Oh yeah, I poured some 100% pure maple syrup on snow so you could see the color of a New England snowcone.

Delicious! Pour it on pancakes, vanilla ice cream, oatmeal. Mix it into your tea, coffee or latte. Make cookies, candy or fudge.

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