Homesteader’s wildcrafted sugar

This spring we’ve seen what may be one of the best maple syrup seasons in years. The forecast for this season was that it would be a short one, considering how early it started and how little snow was on the ground. However, the weather has been rather perfect for the last couple months, and we’ve been getting sap runs virtually every week since we tapped back in February. We saw our peak run only last week. This is in stark contrast to last year, when the farm probably had the worst season ever.

Path to sugarbushPath to sugarbush

Shown above is the trail we walk to get to the mature sugarbush we have on site. It’s actually been a mostly snow-free season here (the opposite of last year, when we had four or more feet of snow in most places); I took the above shots after one of the few snowfalls we had.

We collect sap in reused 4-litre water jugs as a means of both saving money and keeping the plastic out of landfills and the downcycling industry for a little while longer. They work very well for sap. They obviously don’t have the same longevity as galvanized sap buckets – over time little holes form as a result of handling and UV degradation – but so long as we can get them for free (which, mostly, we do), it makes a lot of sense.

Recycled jugs for collecting sapTwo-tap tree

Many of our taps are the traditional metal taps, which we’ve acquired over the years from various sources. However, when we run short, we have simple homemade taps that Deryk carves out of branches of the right diameter – just sticks with a hole in the middle for the sap to run through. They seem to work just as well as the metal taps. On collection days, we take a walk through the sugarbush, emptying the sap from the jugs into 4- and 5-gallon buckets.

Homemade sap tapEmptying jugs into buckets

Now, until we build an evaporator (maybe based on a rocket stove), the only means we have for boiling down sap is on our wood-fired cookstoves. There are three active households on the property with wood stoves that are running anyway, for heat and daily cooking. So each time we collect sap we try to cram it all into pots on our respective stoves.

Fresh sap heating on stove

The sap boiling does make for an extra-warm, extra-humid environment indoors. Thankfully, we have windows we can open and layers we can strip off, as needed.

Boiling sap ready for testing

After 2-4 days of simmering and boiling (depending on the amount of sap collected), we end up with something that’s dark and very sweet – increasingly akin to syrup. The volume of syrup often seems shockingly less than you expect… but such is the nature of maple syrup! A sap-to-syrup ratio of 40:1 is typical. The best way to test the syrup’s readiness is with a candy thermometer – when the liquid reaches 104ºC, it’s syrup.

Unfortunately, all the candy thermometers on the property have bit the dust, so there’s another cool way to test: the apron test. To test, dip a spoon or spatula into the boiling sap, then pull it out and watch how the liquid drips. If it drips as individual drops, the sap isn’t boiled down enough yet:

Drip test showing single drops - not readyDrip test still showing single drops

When the syrup aprons off the spoon – that is, drips off in a sheet – that’s when it’s ready to be bottled:

Syrup runs off spatula in a sheet - ready!Drip test confirmed - syrup is ready!

If you boil past the syrup stage, the syrup gets too thick and may crystallize in the jar. But if you don’t boil it enough, it will not preserve properly (it could ferment).

Before bottling, and while the syrup is still very hot, we pass the syrup through a sieve made out of layered scraps of wool sweaters to clarify it and reduce the amount of sediment that collects. Felted wool would be even better. Commercial filters are made either out of wool or synthetic materials, but for the home syrupmaker, that’s not necessary; old wool sweaters work like a charm.

Filtering syrup through old wool sweater

Then I bottle the syrup in bottles that have been sitting in hot or boiling water. It’s not really necessary to sterilize your bottles. If you don’t, a thin layer of harmless mould may form on the top surface of the syrup over the course of its storage, but you can just skim that off. It’s good to have your bottles hot, however, to prevent breakage due to the temperature difference when they are filled with hot syrup.

Old liquor bottles work great for maple syrup. Deryk’s favourite choice is Kraken Rum bottles since they have cute little handles. I just used an old scotch bottle. Ta-da!

Finished syrup