Making maple syrup in your own backyard: Part 1

In many areas of Michigan, March is often a great time to tap trees to make your own maple syrup. In the first of a two-part series, MSU Extension offers a few tips on tree selection, the tapping process and the collection of sap.

March is maple syrup season in many parts of Michigan – although this winter’s unusually warm temperatures has caused the maple syrup season to start much earlier than expected in the southern part of the state. Nonetheless, many people are tempted from time to time to try and tap their own maple trees and make their own maple syrup. Here are a few tips that will make backyard syrup producers seem like professionals with this natural resource enterprise.

The best type of maple tree to tap for syrup is the sugar maple and its cousin, the black maple. These species often produce the sweetest sap. However, red maple and to a lesser degree, silver maple also can be tapped – but their sap is usually less sweet and produces more “sugar sand” during the boiling process. The only maple that should not be tapped is the Norway maple as its sap is milky and not clear as with the other maples.

Maple trees should be at least 10 inches in diameter in size (approximately 32 inches in circumference) at 4.5 feet off the ground. Trees that are 10-15 inches in diameter can support one tap hole while trees that are 16-20 inches in diameter can support two tap holes. As trees grow larger, they can support more taps. But many forest health experts suggest two taps per tree as an optimum to not put undue stress on a tree.

Before tapping any trees, organize the equipment you will need. You will need a drill, 7/16-inch bit, and rubber mallet or small hammer for the tapping process. While many backyard producers can use tools and equipment around the house to collect and make maple syrup, it might be worthwhile to purchase a few items from maple syrup equipment suppliers in Michigan to make the job more efficient. For example, while CLEAN milk jugs can be used to collect sap, it might be worthwhile to purchase the spouts or spiles that are tapped into the freshly drilled tap hole to hang the jug on. Also, buying an orlon filter to filter finished syrup is another worthwhile purchase to make a higher quality maple syrup.

Maple sap flows best from a tree when nighttime temperatures fall below freezing and daytime temperatures rise well-above freezing (in the 40-50 degree F range). During these sap runs, it is possible to get more than 1 gallon of sap per tap hole in a 24-hour period. Therefore, use collection containers such as milk jugs or distilled water containers to collect sap flow. Over the course of a season, one tap hole can produce between 10-15 gallons of sap on average.

One of the keys to producing quality maple syrup is to keep the sap collected as cold as possible until enough sap has been collected to boil down. Sap can be stored in new or very clean garbage cans or other large containers for a few days of time – depending on the temperature. Be sure that storage containers have not been previously used for anything unsanitary (e.g. old 5-gallon paint buckets are definitely NOT recommended!).

For more information, Extension Bulletin E-2617, “Homemade Maple Syrup” can be purchased from the MSU Extension Bookstore. This one-page publication costs only $0.25.

Click here for Part 2 of this series, which addresses how to boil down sap into finished syrup and filtering it to make a quality product.

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