Tapping into Maple syrup season
After the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, but before spring brings us back into the fields and gardens, generations of Wisconsinites have ventured into the forest to harvest one of our states delicacies – maple sap.
Maple tapping is a connection to our food and our history. Native Americans have been tapping these trees for centuries, and our first European settlers continued the tradition after they arrived in the 17th century. Maple tapping is such a strong part of our history that the Sugar Maple is even our state tree!
Wisconsin produced 440,000 gallons of maple syrup in 2022, making us fourth in the nation for production. Tapping typically begins in the early weeks of March, but the temperatures determine the exact season. Sap flows best when it is above freezing during the day and below freezing at night. Colder daytime temperatures reduce sap flow, and higher nighttime temperatures cause the tree to start growing its buds, making the sap turn bitter.
There are various best practices that maple tappers follow to ensure the longevity of their “sugar bush,” the term for a group of maple trees. The circumference of the maple tree determines if you can place one or more taps into it each season. In general, a 10 to 20 inch diameter tree can have one tap, 20 to 25 inches can sustain two taps, and larger than 25 inches can have up to three taps. New tap holes also need to be placed at least six inches from previous tap holes. Following these practices ensures the longevity of the sugar bush and doesn’t leave long term impacts on the trees.
I recently visited Pozarski Family Farms in Boyd, WI for the annual first tree tapping. This tradition has continued for many years, where the Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producers Association gathers to celebrate the beginning of Maple Month, held March 15 – April 15.
I also made a trip this spring to visit Something Special from Wisconsin member, The Maple Dude, in Granton to learn how he taps his trees, some of which are the same trees his great grandfather tapped in the 1800’s. We started by picking the spot for our tap hole, using a drill to start the hole, and adding a spout extender to some flexible tubing to capture nature’s sweetener. Using a small rubber mallet, I tapped the spout the rest of the way in. You can tell the spout is in the right spot when the sound it makes changes pitch.
The Maple Dude’s set up uses a vacuum to send the sap through those flexible tubes all the way to the collection tank. Other producers may still simply use gravity to start the flow and collect it from each tree into individual buckets or bags. These individual collections will then be taken to a larger collection area for further processing.
After tapping the trees, I was able to see the next steps in the process. The sap comes out of the trees with a high water content. This extra water needs to be boiled off or evaporated to bring up the sugar content of the finished product. Originally, vats of the sap were heated with a wood fire that needed to be constantly maintained. While some facilities still prefer the old fashioned way, other producers have moved to natural gas to create a more consistent heat.
The sap is heated until it reached a measurement of 66 or 67 brix, which is a way to measure the sugar content. And out from the evaporators comes maple syrup! After the syrup is filtered, it is bottled and is then ready to coat your morning pancakes. For every 40 gallons of sap collected, approximately one gallon of syrup is produced.
You can watch my visit with The Maple Dude on Facebook or learn more about maple syrup from the Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producers Association at wismaple.org
Taylor Schaefer is Wisconsin's 75th Alice in Dairyland