Maple syrup is the quintessential Canadian treat. Did you know you can make it yourself? With some maple trees, the right weather and a little work you can collect and turn maple tree sap into the perfect pancake topper. And this is not just a northern or eastern Canada activity. On Vancouver Island there is a growing community of industrious folk making their own maple syrup. The BC Forest Discovery Centre in Duncan hosts a maple syrup festival every year.
My awesome friend here in Lake Cowichan (Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island, BC) has tapped some trees this winter and has made a couple liters of maple syrup so far. It’s the beginning of February so still lots of time to make more. I haven’t been involved in every step of the process but she took me on a tour of the tapped trees to collect sap, and showed me various stages of the cooking process.
Big Leaf Maples vs. Sugar Maples
In the Cowichan Valley and up and down Vancouver Island we have primarily Big Leaf maples which grow really well here. They are not the same as Sugar Maples but still produce a delicious syrup. There is less sugar in their sap than their Eastern counterparts and the resulting syrup colour ranges from golden to a dark tea/coffee colour.
In an interview with Cowichan Valley Citizen, Katherine Banman of Sapsuckers, a group of Island maple syrup producers, says “We usually need some freezing weather followed by warmer weather and sunshine with a high water table. That’s gives the best flows of sap, to our knowledge. But the trees sometimes really surprise us.”
The Sapsuckers site: www.blmaple.net and Tap my trees: www.tapmytrees.com both have lots of details on tapping trees and syrup production, including how to pick good trees to tap. I am going to outline the basic steps and share some photos of the process.
1. Locate maple trees. There are a number of varieties that can work – if you are unsure of the type of Maples that grow in your area check with local garden shops or agriculture centre.
2. Tap the trees. You will need a tap or spile for each tree. They are usually 5/16″ or 7/16″ in diameter so you will need a drill bit the same size. Drill the hole approximately 2-2.5″ deep and make the hole at a slight upward angle to encourage downward flow. blmaple.net recommends a twisted bit as opposed to a flat bit .
3. Set up your sap collection system. Use buckets and/or cleaned out milk and juice jugs, along with tubing to collect sap. If you use buckets you will want to keep the lid on and cut a hole for the tube to keep out bugs and rainwater. You can also tap multiple trees that are close together and have the tubes lead to the same bucket. Get creative!
4. Use your sap. The biggest surprise for me was learning that the sap comes out looking like water! It is called maple water and can be used instead of water for cooking and to drink. It contains a number of vitamins, amino acids and minerals. Some are even touting it as the new coconut water:
Maple water: The new coconut water? By Hank Schultz, 11-Jul-2013
Coconut water has a new competitor. Maple water, a beverage consisting of the raw sap from sugar maple trees, has made its Canadian market debut in Quebec and British Columbia, according to an organization of maple sugar producers.
5. Make maple syrup. This part is very technical so I am going to quote directly from blmaple.net:
“Making syrup, the boil-down
Sap is about 98% water, and boiling causes evaporation, which reduces it to syrup. At 2% sugar it will take about 43 litres of sap to make one litre of syrup. If the boiling-down is done indoors, you will have 42 litres of steam to deal with. Using wood or propane heat outdoors is preferred. Stainless steel or cast iron flat bottom pans or large diameter kettles are best. Sap is considered syrup at 66.5% sugar.
- Fill pan with sap and heat to a rolling boil (some people filter the sap first)
- Skim off foam if present
- Add additional sap as level drops (add sap slowly in order not to kill the boil)
- Taste occasionally for sweetness. Sap can burn easily when it is close to being done, so when it tastes quite sweet, bring the pan indoors to finish carefully on the stove
- You can judge doneness by taste alone or by measuring temperature. Boil some water and measure the boiling temperature with a candy thermometer. Water turns to a gas at boiling so you can only reach approx. 212 degrees F and no hotter. The boiling temperature of water changes daily with atmospherics conditions. Your syrup will be 66.7% sugar once its boiling temperature reaches 7 degrees F higher than the temperature of boiling water. It’s the sugar in the syrup that allows you to reach the higher temperature.”
Some tips for making your own maple syrup
If you do end up doing the main reduction cooking outside you will find that some bugs may end up in the mix. You can use a sieve or make a filter with pantyhose or similar porous material and scoop out any bugs as well as foam. My friend says the candy thermometer is mandatory and it is important to boil water and get the exact boiling temperature for your conditions. She boiled water and her thermometer read 208.4F so she could only go up to 215.4F. If she had gone to 219 she may have turned it into a hard candy, which did happen one time with a small quantity. If that happens you can always add water and reheat.