Disclaimer: I realize the title is a bit misleading because this is simply how we made maple syrup from five trees using low-tech methods.
As this is our first year making maple syrup we wanted to do things on the cheap, so our only investment was in traditional buckets and spiles, which cost about $30 (though we could have used recycled plastic buckets had we wanted to). We chose the iconic lidded metal buckets because 1.) I prefer metal to plastic, 2.) we can use them year after year, and 3.) I like the look of them. When I close my eyes and picture a sugar bush, this is what I see.
A bit of nostalgia? Perhaps. But as we're tapping only a handful of trees, collecting buckets is easy and manageable. Even the children enjoy this chore, racing to each tree, lifting the lid off the bucket and tipping the clear contents into the waiting pail below. (We used food-grade wine-making pails that we found in the barn.)
Five almost-full sap buckets nearly fills three 20 litre pails, which can fit side-by-side on a kids' sled (that I can drag when there is snow) or on the back of the ATV (when there is not). The hard part isn't getting the sap out of the trees or the sap into the gathering pails -- it's getting the pails out of the woods, which can be made downright treacherous by the weather (think mud sucking trails laced with patches of ice).
Next year when we tap more trees (we're thinking 10) this bucket method will still be manageable, though instead of the small wine buckets, we'd use a much larger gathering pail that we'd pull by tractor. Still I can appreciate why a growing number of producers, home-scale and commercial, are switching to plastic tubing pipeline systems, which move the sap via tubes that are connected to a centralized collection "vat" in or near the sugar shack.
This is certainly a more efficient collection method, but it is more expensive to purchase up-front, more time consuming to set up and can require ongoing maintenance due to squirrel damage. What's more, something of the sugar bush lore and romance is lost when the trees look like they're connected to an elaborate IV.
As we're simply interested in making maple syrup for our own consumption, I quite like the slow and simple process of gathering buckets. Much of our traditional ways have been lost in the quest for greater efficiency, and while we may be able to harvest more sap for less time and effort by using more "advanced" technology, the experience and link to tradition would be lost.
In keeping with our low-tech, minimal cost approach, we, too, decided to boil the sap down over an open fire. Larger hobbyists and commercial producers use evaporators, but even a small evaporator for up to 150 spiles would set us back $3,000.
We didn't have a big iron kettle like the pioneers used, so instead I built a rough three-sided "oven" out of cinder blocks in our fire pit and topped it with an old grate. Lucas found a stainless steel stock pot on sale ($13) and we used that for our main boiling pot. (I think it's only a 12 quart size and while a larger pot or shallow pan might have been better, we wanted to make use of what we had or was readily available.)
I had a second pot (not shown) that I used to pre-boil the sap, so as the larger pot boiled down, I added the pre-boiled sap to it to keep the temperature fairly constant (unless the sap in the larger pot threatened to boil over and then I'd add cold sap to cool it off).
I didn't need to sit there the entire time, but I did enjoy several hours of quiet contemplation at the fireside watching the steam billow and the sap dance over the glowing coals as the fire hissed and crackled. Pure magic.
It took about seven hours to boil roughly 55 litres of clear sap down to 4-5 litres of thin golden syrup. At that point, I brought the sap into the house (while it was still hot) and filtered it into another stainless steel stock pot. While I'd already filtered the sap once in the woods, to remove the bugs and pieces of bark, quite a lot of particulate matter (from ash, cinders, etc.) had collected in the boiling sap. It's also wise to remove the gritty sediment called 'sugar sand' (or niter), which is minerals and nutrients from the trees that concentrates as the sap boils down.
I then put the remaining sap on the stove top to finish it. As I'd already boiled most of the water off outside, I didn't need to worry too much about excess condensation in the house (as sap is only 3 - 5% sugar and the rest water, sugaring inside the house can peel wallpaper and invite mould into the walls), but I used the vent fan all the same.
Finished sap boils at approximately 103.8 degrees Celsius (218.8 degrees Fahrenheit) (at sea level). It's important to keep an eye on the sap/syrup as you approach this point because as the concentration of sugar increases, less water is available to boil away, which means the syrup can easily boil over and/or burn.
If you let it boil too long as I did with our first batch, it'll start to thicken and crystallize. (Ironically, this happened as Lucas and I were arguing over whether the sap/syrup was ready yet. Guess he was right.)
The above syrup has a creamy consistency flecked with granulated maple sugar bits and is delicious in coffee, drizzled on ice cream, smeared on toast, eaten by the spoonful...
I was much more careful with the second batch and while I didn't have a candy thermometer handy (I broke it with the first batch) or a hydrometer to check the density of the maple (finished syrup is roughly 65% sugar) I'd say this one turned out perfect -- deep amber in colour with a smokey rich sweetness.
Sugaring season is short, with most sap coming during a 10 to 14 day "run," depending on the weather. We'll continue to collect sap and make syrup until the buds open and the trees stop producing. With this strange spring, that may come sooner than we hope.
Like many of our "simpler" pursuits, there is a lot of time and work involved transforming sap into syrup, especially when making it the traditional way. But this process fosters a deep appreciation for the gift that nature provides us and helps create a connection to the folks who settled our land and had their own sugaring-off celebrations. If these trees could talk, I'm sure they'd have many sweet stories to tell. Instead, we're sharing our own.