This is part one of two of the urban tree tapping series. In this post I’ll cover finding your tree, tapping it, and collecting the sap. In part two we’ll talk about the boil, where we turn that liquid sap into liquid gold.
The elusive sugar maple is hard to find in cities because it’s not well suited to life on a roadside with exposure to road salt and pollution. If you’re lucky enough to have a sugar maple on your property, you can very easily make your own maple syrup from it. However, you’re really not limited to one special kind of tree in order to make syrup! There are lots of other types of maple tree that can be tapped for maple syrup, not to mention all the other species of tree that can be tapped to make other syrups, like birch or walnut. We don’t have a sugar maple on our property, but we do have the much more common Norway Maple.
Some people will tell you not to bother tapping a non-sugar maple because the sugar content is too low, or that the syrup doesn’t taste the same. In my experience tapping sugar maples at my childhood farm, the same tree produces completely different tasting syrup throughout the tapping season, so I don’t give any clout to the theory that one species of maple will taste different than any other. In the end, it’s a matter of sugar content and boiling time, and all maple syrup tastes amazing in its own way!
Different types of maple will have different sugar contents, though, and the sugar content will dictate the ratio of sap you’ll need to get syrup. I’ve seen it estimated that you’ll need approximately 60 litres of Norway Maple sap to make 1 litre of the thick, sweet syrup that we know and love to put on our pancakes. In comparison, the Sugar Maple sap has a 40:1 sap to syrup ratio.
If you’re looking for a resource to help identify a maple tree on your property, this is a good one.
If your tree is on city property like mine is, you might want to check your city bylaws to make sure there’s nothing prohibiting tapping city owned trees, as is/was the case in Toronto. Many roadside trees are actually technically owned by the city, which is great for tree maintenance but annoying if you want to control what you do with the tree. Mine is city owned, but luckily there is nothing written in the bylaws about tapping.
Once you’ve identified your tree and you know your city’s bylaws don’t prohibit tapping it, it’s time to get your equipment. I’m lucky to have grown up in a hobby-tree-tapping family, and when I wanted to tap my own tree in the city I just procured some extra supplies from home. You’ll need a spial (or multiple spials, depending on the size of your tree), tubing to connect to your spial, at least one food grade plastic pail with a lid, a hammer, and a drill with bits the size of the spial and the tubing. You can get this equipment at farm supply stores, some hardware stores, and even on Amazon. I recommend the plastic spial, tubing, and pail with lid for urban tapping (as opposed the classic metal spial and pail) because you want to minimize the risk of passersby throwing garbage in your pail of pristine sap. Sad reality of urban homesteading: people can be @$$holes.
Tapping the tree should take place when daytime temperatures start to rise above freezing, but nighttime temps are still below freezing. For us, it’s usually late February to mid March. To tap your tree, drill a hole in your tree the size of the spial at a slight upward angle (think about allowing the sap to drip out with the help of gravity). Drill 2″ to 2.5″ into the tree. You’ll also want to drill a hole the size of your tubing into the lid of the pail. Then lightly hammer your spial in, attach the tubing, and pop the other end of the tubing through the hole in the pail lid. If you live in a windy environment or you’re worried about jerks stealing or tipping over your pail of sap, consider chaining/tying it to the tree. Mine just sits on the ground right beside the tree.
A word to the wise: sap can spoil if it gets warm. Empty your sap pail every day or two into jars and keep in your fridge or freezer. This is where I underplanned – make sure you have enough fridge or freezer space for the amount of sap you hope to collect. I’d like to get 60 litres from my one tree, but I’ll have to let you know what my final count is when we get there.
Check back for Part Two of this series, where we boil down the sap into syrup. If you’re playing along at home, now’s the time to start sourcing a turkey frier or other means of having an outdoor boiling station. You DO NOT want to boil sap inside your kitchen. Trust me on that. And I’ll see you next time!