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Making maple syrup in urban Minnesota

Posted by deborahmclaren on April 4, 2011

Our first two quarts

Our first two quarts of maple syrup

There is NOTHING like real maple syrup. We’re spoiled here in Minnesota since we can buy it directly from the Anishinabe that make it out in the bush every year. We’re so spoiled that we like to sprinkle it on our pancakes and oatmeal, make cakes and cookies and other pastries with it brew beer with it and even drink the sap that comes directly out of the tree. I’ve been eying our two maple trees in the front yard for years but thought it would be impossible to actually make our own syrup. This year I decided to do it.

Spiles

Spiles, or taps, for tapping maple trees

Sugar Bush is a social event as well as syrup production time for hobbyists and those who do it for a living. My family and I have been out to the “sugar bush” several times over the years to learn about tapping the trees. Late winter – usually February or March (they call it spring here even though there is still several feet of snow on the ground) is tapping time. You have to have days when the temps get up over 32 and nights when it goes back down. However, I’ve only seen projects where hundreds of trees are tapped. That takes a lot of forest and a lot of buckets. I also knew that it takes 40 gallons of sap to get one gallon of syrup. It also takes a big outside fire and constantly boiling the sap until all of the water evaporates. Up at White Earth Indian Reservation and other places in the North Woods some families have their own sugar bush camps – usually a primitive cabin to stay in while they are out tapping and boiling for weeks at a time. It’s a lot of work!

Maple Syrup Starter Kit

Maple Syrup Starter Kit

I really didn’t think we’d get much sap from our two sugar maples here in the city, but what the heck. I went over to the Egg|Plant Urban Farm store in Saint Paul and talked to them about it. They were selling the tree tap spouts, or “spiles,” buckets, mesh for straining, books about making maple syrup and had plenty of advice. Nope, we weren’t the only fools in the city that wanted to make maple syrup. Yes, we could make it with only two trees. Yep, they would send out a notice when it was just the right time to start tapping. We loaded up and then went home to read.  They sell “Tap My Trees” products and the book that comes with the kit, “Maple Sugaring at Home” was invaluable. And watch a few videos on Youtube.com. Here’s a link to a video that was straight forward and helpful:

David Martin and Bill Dahl are two Minnesotans that love to make maple syrup. Here’s a step-by-step video of David and Bill by Lawrence R. Pfleger. .

We started with drilling holes in the trees that would accommodate the size spiles we bought. The spiles went right in and fit beautifully. They come with a clip for the bucket. For those who want to have plenty of syrup throughout the year, it is helpful to have at least 2 maple trees available to you for tapping as the season is short and you need to collect a lot of sap in order to make more than one bottle a year.  We ended up putting 3 buckets on 2 trees. The first couple of days we were getting about 3 gallons a day total from both trees. Then, the sun came out and the temperatures went up and the trees stopped producing.  We waited and two days later the temps went down below freezing at night and the trees started producing again. So far, after about two weeks, we’ve made more than 3 quarts of dark golden, buttery flavored maple syrup.

Tap My Trees' "Maple Sugaring at Home"

Tap My Trees' "Maple Sugaring at Home"

We were warned to boil the sap constantly – and to do it outside. Since we were boiling a small amount we did it inside on our stove with the overhead fan going all the time and it worked fine.  The key, we learned, is to keep the boil going and check out it every hour or so – stirring when we checked. Once the syrup boiled about half way down the big pot we’d add more sap. The idea is to evaporate the water in the sap.

Once we got the syrup dark, golden brown and the boil to about 215 degrees it would start foaming. That’s when we decided it was done. The trickiest part of the whole process, for me at least, was straining it. After a couple of tries I found that using clothes pins to secure the straining cloth over a pot works well. You can leave a little extra cloth so that it makes a dip in the center – easier to pour into and hold the syrup. I poured the syrup while it was still hot and it still took a while for it to go through the cloth.

I poured the syrup into sterlized quart jars and a few minutes later heard the lids pop. We could store it on the shelf, however, we decided to store the syrup in our spare fridge. I don’t know how long four quarts will last since we’re practically using it every meal right now. The buttery, intense taste is divine!

Straining small batches of syrup

Straining small batches of syrup

News from Indian Country has a website and youtube channel has taped and posted a video of Jim Northrup, a well respected Objibwe known for his writing about Indian country in Minnesota. In the video Jim is making spiles from wood. It’s during sugar bush and he and some of his family are outside boiling syrup.

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4 Responses to “Making maple syrup in urban Minnesota”

  1. Corinne Cronkite-Ouellette said

    Really like your web site and we did Maple syrup in our own backyard for the first time and enjoyed it very much. Didn’t cost us a dime.

  2. Mandy said

    What a great explanation! I have a few questions. What if one bucket of sap reduces before I can get another bucket in the pot? Another is when it takes a long time to strain, will it remain hot enough to can, to make the lids pop?
    Any help would be great, we plan on doing it this year!

    • Hi Mandy, We keep adding new sap to the boil. It takes a few buckets before it reduces down to enough to jar. Basically you’re just boiling off the water so you’ll have to keep adding to it to get enough to jar/can. It doesn’t take long to strain. But if it does get cold, just heat it back up until its the right temp for jarring. Traditionally it is boiled outside because it can create a sticky mess on the walls and ceiling of your kitchen. I do it in my house, but with a window slightly open and a careful eye watching over it at all times. We don’t do a lot so it’s not as messy. Good luck with yours! – Deborah

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