Sticky, sweet and rewarding: maple sugaring at home

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Are you tired of paying $50 for a gallon of maple syrup? Do you want to know where your food products are coming from? Want to be environmentally friendly and keep a few extra Benjamins in your pocket while you’re at it?

At Vermont Harvest Sun, in rural Bristol, Vermont, Jacob Roy has found a way to meet all of these needs in a very simple way: He taps his own trees and makes his own maple syrup. With a bit of help from his wife, Elizabeth, and their three children, Oliver, Abigail and Evan, Roy saves almost four hundred dollars each year sugaring.

The process begins in the summer and fall months when the trees are most easily identifiable by their leaves, because the first step in tapping a maple is making sure that you are actually tapping a maple. There are a few different types that produce quality maple syrup: sugar, silver, black and red. Maples are characterized by their opposed leaf arrangements and the propeller seeds they drop throughout late summer and early fall.

Roy tags 30-40 maples with florescent orange tape year-round to keep the guess work out of the coming sugaring season. “We don’t tap the same trees every single year. It’s important to give the tree a break, and let it heal. After all, we are taking its blood,” he says.

Next you have to get the materials. Roy was given the majority of his buckets, lids and spouts from his father-in-law and only had to pay for the propane tanks that boil his sap.

If you aren’t as lucky as Roy to inherit the supplies you need to start your own sugaring operation, you can peruse the internet for supplies, or if you don’t want to pay the shipping for large orders, hardware stores carry tapping supplies.

You’ll need to purchase: a sap bucket, lid and spout for each tree you plan to tap; a large sap collection container, Roy uses two recycled recycle bins; cheesecloth for straining debris; a few kitchen boiling pans; and one or two tanks of propane. Prices for these items can range from a few dollars for the lid to a couple hundred for a high-end spout, so the total cost of sugaring supplies depends on how fancy an operation you want to run.

“We put in our first taps on the third of March this year, but you can start anytime when the days start getting above freezing level, around 32 degrees Fahrenheit,” Roy says as he begins to demonstrate the process.

Sporting a deep-brown barn coat, he walks down into a dell behind his house towards an unmarked maple growing straight to the sky despite the uneven ground it grips with its roots. Determining that the back side of the tree faces west where the sap flow is greatest, Roy places the tip of his drill on the chosen spot about two feet off the ground. Standing almost 6’2, he has to bend slightly at his back in order to put his full two hundred and twenty pounds against the crank of the drill.

“You have to drill it at an upward angle,”says Roy between forced cranks, “And if it’s warm enough, when you get about an inch into the bark, sap’ll leak right out.” Disappointment at the lack of flow on the sunny, yet deceptively cold day is evident in a sigh when he pulls the drill out to check its depth.

Seeing he has drilled far enough, Roy drops the drill. He pulls the grimy, silver tap from his back pocket and eases it into the hole in the maple bark. He grabs a palm-sized stone at his feet and begins to gently push the tap further into the tree. After eleven taps, Roy places the hook for the bucket over the jutting spout, attaches the bucket to the hook and bends the lid into place over the bucket and tap. “Fairly straight forward,” says Roy, wiping his yellow-gloved hands on his blue jeans.

He walks about 40 paces over to a shed that houses two recycle bins of sap, and an aluminum pan and kettle, each attached to a tank of propane, busily boiling off water.

Roy removes his gloves and stuffs them in his back pocket, running a paw through his military cut brown hair. “Daddy? Can I have a piece?” asks his nine year-old daughter who has been shadowing him through the entire process. A thin arm shoots out from her side as Roy snaps off an icy fragment of sap from the frozen-over recycle bin. The measly piece begins to melt in her hand as Abigail savors the watery candy.

Roy turns to cover a pail with cheesecloth and drains a pot full of sap from the recycle bin. “I strain out the sap from the tree before I start to boil it and I’ll do it again before we take it into the house to boil on the stove and one last time before we bottle the syrup,” he says. Roy holds out the cheesecloth to show the dark debris on the filter and then dumps the pail’s contents into the five-gallon kettle.

“It’ll take about 30 minutes to boil down before I add any more sap to it. Sometimes I’ll just bring my laptop in here and watch movies to keep myself occupied but once the sap boils down I’ll move it to the pan,” Roy says, indicating the pan on his right that is slowly boiling a softly golden liquid, “and once that one gets low enough, I’ll bring it in the house and finish boiling it on the stove.”

“I can stay up and help tonight,” Abigail offers, mysteriously coming to life again. “Pleeeasssse?” she pleads. Roy chuckles, shakes his head once, and the matter is settled. She remains eager to offer any other help that would require her to stay up past her bedtime.

Roy explains that the temperature has to be monitored very closely once the sap has boiled down enough to be brought to the stove. Roy uses a candy thermometer to be sure that the temperature doesn’t exceed 219 degrees Fahrenheit. Any higher and the maple sugar becomes hard candy when allowed to cool, or the same consistency used in sugar-on-snow.

Roy’s small operation is nothing compared to the massive commercial maple sugaring plants that struggle to produce syrup in the unpredictable Vermont climate, but in the future he hopes to tap five to ten extra trees and sell a few gallons to bring in a bit of money through his current endeavor. “It’s a long process, but at 60 dollars a gallon, it’s well worth the payoff, and very rewarding,” Roy remarks, shutting the door of the shed as he leaves the sap behind to boil.

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