By Brandon Butler
For most, maple syrup is an artificially engineered thick, brown liquid with a corn syrup base bought in a plastic bottle. But it doesn’t have to be.
Making your own all-natural maple syrup is easier than you might expect. The sweet sap inside maple trees is the lone ingredient.
The process of collecting maple sap and turning it into syrup is something just about anyone can do. Sap, a combination of water and sugar, is collected from trees and then boiled between 200 and 230 degrees until the water is evaporated — leaving concentrated sugar, or syrup.
Longtime syrup maker Don Bickel says, “Good sap is about 2 percent sugar. Most of it, though is closer to 1.5 percent. That 1.5 to 2 percent is syrup, so you just boil off all the water, which is actually about 98 percent of the sap.”
Native Americans are recognized as the first people to produce maple syrup. Ken Asselin wrote, “One of the most popular stories about the history of maple syrup involves a Native American chief who discovered the clear liquid sap leaking from a tree he had stuck his knife into. As the day warmed up, the sap dripped into a pan on the ground. The chief’s wife, after tasting it and discovering it tasted very good, cooked his meat in it.”
The word of this sweet liquid spread, and soon all across the range of maple trees Native Americans were digging their knives into the flesh of trees, allowing sap to ooze out.
Birch bark funnels were used for collecting the sap into pots, which were boiled over a fire. The tradition has continued for centuries.
Today’s collection process is not much more complicated. Maple trees are tapped with a spout, called a spile, and buckets are hung underneath to collect the sap as it drains. The buckets are collected, the sap is boiled and syrup is produced.
I made maple syrup once with Bickel and a bunch of old-timers near Crawfordsville. They called their operation the Sugar Shack.
To begin turning sap to syrup, they used a generator to a power a pump that sent the sap from the collection barrels to an elevated livestock tank inside an old cabin. The trough sat above a series of lower pans, roughly four feet long by two feet wide. Gravity pushed the sap down through the pans.
A switch cut off the downward supply when the pans were at capacity. The entire tank and pan system rested on top of a brick fire pit. Logs were inserted under the pan furthest from the trough, so the temperature of the sap increased as it made its way through the system until it reached the last pan, where it became maple syrup.
A simple, yet amazing, process.
There are many videos online and books available to teach you all you need to know to produce your own maple syrup straight from nature. The process is one that does not require a lot of investment in equipment, and it doesn’t take a lot of time.
Plus, maple syrup making gives you a great reason to spend more time outdoors during the winter months.
See you down the trail.
Brandon Butler writes a weekly outdoors column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.