It’s always a good idea to try to fit real life learning into our homeschools. Whenever possible, I like my boys to learn real skills which will be useful to them later in life. We have the good fortune of living next door to my husband’s grandparents. Grandpa and Grandma are turning 90 this year; however, they still live at home, they are both in amazingly good health, and they have a wealth of knowledge that they are willing to share with us whenever we ask.
One of the traditional skills my boys have been fortunate to learn has been how to tap a maple tree. My husband grew up eating real maple syrup on everything – and even taking a swig of it now and then – so it was only natural that our boys would also learn to love maple syrup.
For most of the years we’ve been married, Grandpa has rounded up all of the guys in the family and gotten them to go around gathering sap from over 100 trees so that he could make lots of maple syrup. And he has always been generous enough to distribute that syrup to the family throughout the year. Yum!
In the past few years, however, Grandpa has had to give up the arduous process of making the syrup. So this year, we’ve decided to gather some sap ourselves and try our hand at making our own syrup.
I was given this product for free and will be compensated for my time, but all of my opinions are honest and I was not required to write a positive review.
There is quite a bit of equipment needed for gathering maple sap. A company called Tap My Trees was kind enough to give us a Teacher’s Kit for review, which includes just about everything needed for tapping one tree and teaching your kids everything they need to know about the process.
How to Tap a Maple Tree
Here is the procedure for how to tap a maple tree:
- Choose your tree – This can be done in the fall before the leaves have dropped – or you can do it in the spring. Make sure your tree is healthy and is at least 12 inches in diameter.
- Wait for the ideal weather – Sap runs when the nights are cold but the days are above freezing. If you see the snow melting in your area, then it’s probably time to tap the tree.
- Practice drilling the hole – The teacher’s kit came with a bit which fits into a brace or a drill. The brace or drill doesn’t come with the kit so you must provide it yourself. The bit wasn’t very sharp on the end – probably for safety – so we ended up using Grandpa’s bit to make it easier for the boys. Grandpa suggested that the boys practice on a board or a scrub tree to get the hang of drilling at the right angle. He said that the drill bit should be angled upwards so that the sap will have gravity on its side. Also, he said to try not to wobble the bit around or we’d break the seal on the tree and sap would run outside of the spile.
- Find your spot – If your tree has been tapped previously, you need to look for an area which hasn’t been tapped before. This is because the tree ends up creating hard spots when it heals from being tapped – and these spots would be hard to drill into.
- Prepare your spot – Remove a small amount of bark from the tree where you want to drill. This will make it easier for your bit to rest firmly on the tree.
- Drill the hole – Remember to drill at a slightly upward angle. Drill until the bit is fully into the tree.
- Remove the bit – Carefully back the bit up pulling gently to remove it from the tree. If the weather is right, you should see sap running down the tree at this point.
- Insert the spile – The kit comes with a hook for your bucket. Be sure to put this on your spile BEFORE inserting it into the tree! To insert the spile, push it into the hole you just created. Use a hammer to gently tap the spile into place. You need to provide the hammer yourself.
- Hang the bucket – Once the spile is firmly inserted into the tree, you can hang the bucket from the hook.
- Place the lid – Attach the lid to the bucket with the metal pin that comes with the kit.
Then, just wait. Depending on how quickly the sap is running, your bucket may be full within a few hours or by the next morning. Check your bucket frequently so that you can empty it before it overflows and wastes the sap.
When your bucket is full of sap, you will need another large bucket to empty the sap into for to wait for boiling. When you pour the sap into this second bucket, you will want to pour the sap through a piece of cheesecloth to filter out any large contaminants. (Some cheesecloth is provided with the kit.) Once emptied, place the original bucket back in place on the tree to continue gathering sap.
Continue this process until you have gathered as much sap as you would like – or until the sap has stopped running. When you have gathered as much sap as you would like, simply remove the spile from the tree. The tree will heal itself!
Storing the Sap
According to the Tap My Trees: Maple Sugaring at Home guide, you can collect sap and store it for up to 7 days so that you aren’t having to boil it down every day. The sap must be stored at 38 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, however, to eliminate bacteria growth. You might want to collect it in a food grade bucket with a lid and place it outside in the snow to keep it cold.
Making the Maple Syrup
To make maple syrup, you will need to do a lot of boiling. This is because sap has LOTS of water in it. In fact, it takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. Because of this, the process of making maple syrup will create a lot of steam. According to Grandpa, you aren’t going to want to boil all of the sap inside your house because the steam will cause the stickiness of the sap to coat your walls. From what he said, it has even been known to peel the wallpaper from walls!
He recommended that we use a camp stove outside to boil our sap most of the way down and then to do the final boiling inside on our regular stove. The Tap My Trees guide recommends that you use an open fire pit, a barbecue grill, or an outdoor fryer for the initial boiling. We used our camp stove in the garage for the majority of our boiling and it did work – but it took FOREVER! I would definitely recommend a hotter heat source to begin the process.
The guide which comes with the kit has very detailed instructions for boiling your sap down into syrup so I won’t go into all of that here. There are some important things to keep in mind while making syrup, however.
Two other vital tips that Grandpa told us were:
- Never use equipment which has been washed with soap. It is very hard to get the soap taste out of it and it can adversely affect the taste of your syrup. Use very hot water to rinse the equipment instead. Triple rinse your equipment with very hot water to be sure it’s clean.
- Once the sap gets closer to becoming syrup, don’t walk away. Keep an eye on the pot or it’ll be easy to boil it over or burn it.
The Tap My Trees guide also gives three methods of determining when your syrup is ready. One of the methods involves using a candy thermometer, which is included in the kit.
Once it’s ready, pour it through one of the provided maple syrup filters to be sure that all sediment is filtered out of your syrup. You can pour your syrup into the 12 oz glass bottle which is also provided in the kit.
At this point, you can use your syrup. Store it in the refrigerator and it will last a long time.
I can’t tell you how impressed I am with the Tap My Trees Teacher’s Kit. As Grandpa was showing us how to tap trees and boil down our sap, he kept asking us if we needed to borrow this or that. And I kept telling him that no, we had one because it was provided in our kit. This made it super easy to make our maple syrup because they did most of the legwork for us!
Also, the materials in the kit are super high quality. I’m confident that we’ll be able to reuse the majority of our kit for years to come. Obviously, we’ll have to replace the cheesecloth and the filters. But everything else will last for a long time.
I’m also very surprised by the well-written lesson plan suggestions and the instructional guide which come with the kit. It’s always nice to learn things from someone who knows what they’re doing. But if you don’t have an expert living next door to you, like we do, then this kit will lead you through the process and give you all of the tools that you will need to be able to successfully make syrup.
Looking for some real life learning for science this year? Want to teach your kids how to tap trees and make maple syrup? I highly recommend the Teacher’s Kit from Tap My Trees. It’s the next best thing to having a great grandpa teach you!
By the way, Tap My Trees has a variety of products for your maple syrup needs. These items are also available on Amazon! You can find out more information about them on their website, their Facebook page, Twitter, or Instagram.
Question: Have you ever made your own maple syrup? What traditional skills have you been able to teach your kids? Please leave a comment below!