If you thought maple syrup could only be gleaned from maple trees growing north of the Mason-Dixon Line, think again. Although maple syrup is most often sourced from the Northeast, given the right weather conditions, it can be collected wherever maple trees grow—even in East Tennessee.
David Simerly, a living historian in Elizabethton, Tenn., is in his second year of tapping trees for sap, a hobby that began in 2012 when he and his brothers were making apple butter and decided to try collecting sap to make maple syrup. This year, Simerly tapped a silver maple tree and two red maples on his property, and he is collecting an average of five gallons of sap per tree per day.
“I thought that you had to have sugar maple trees to make maple syrup, but you don’t,” Simerly said. “You can use red maples and silver maples—even birch trees and walnut trees—and all of those trees grow in this area.”
Maple syrup season generally begins in late winter and runs through early spring. Fickle winter weather is the key: The best time to tap trees for sap is on days when the temperature is below freezing at night and above 40 degrees in the daytime.
“I don’t know how far south you can do this because it has to get below freezing at night,” Simerly said. “There are very few people who do this in this area: My brother and I do it, and I saw one other guy in our area with a bucket on a tree. I’ve talked to some people at a local hardware store, and they say that every now and then someone calls to see if they can buy a tap.”
Tapping throughout time
The American Indians living in the northeastern part of North America were the first people known to have produced maple syrup and maple sugar. In the early days of European colonization, the American Indians traded syrup, called “sweet water,” with the colonists and showed them how to tap the trunks of maples during the spring thaw to harvest the sap.
By the 17th and 18th centuries, processed maple sap was a source of sugar. After the passage of the 1764 Sugar Act, which imposed high tariffs on imported sugar, maple sweeteners became even more popular.
Today, maple syrup production is one of only a few agricultural processes unique to North America; Europe does not have the proper weather conditions conducive to producing meaningful amounts of sap.
Lest it sound easy, maple syrup production takes a great deal of patience and planning. Sap is about 98 percent water, so it takes about 40 gallons of sap from a sugar maple—50 gallons of sap from silver and red maples, which have less sugar content—to make just one gallon of maple syrup.
Simerly begins sap season by inserting taps into mature trees, first drilling a hole about 3 inches deep and then inserting a 3/8-inch stainless steel tube into the hole. The number of taps used depends on the size of the tree in order to preserve and protect the tree: one tap for trees 12-20 inches in diameter, two taps for trees 21-27 inches in diameter and three taps for trees greater than 27 inches in diameter.
Maple sap—a clear, tasteless fluid that resembles water—begins to flow immediately after tapping, although the collection amount may vary from day to day. Generally, sap will flow for four to six weeks.
Historically, sugar makers would hang galvanized buckets under taps to collect sap, but today, it is popular to use clear tubing that runs from the taps to a bucket on the ground, which is how Simerly collects his sap.
“I have a lid on my bucket, and the tubing runs into the bucket through tight holes that keep the rain and bugs out,” he said.
He leaves the taps in his trees until they start to bud out in the spring, when the sugar content in the sap decreases.
Turning sap to syrup
As a living historian and member of the Washington County Regiment of North Carolina Militia living history organization, Simerly often demonstrates the historic practice of boiling down sap over a campfire to produce maple syrup and maple sugar.
Cooking sap over a campfire in pioneer fashion takes hours and hours. At home, Simerly uses a nine-gallon pot on an outdoor propane turkey fryer.
“The first time I cooked the sap, I cooked it over an open campfire in a brass kettle, and it took about 10 hours to boil down 10 gallons of sap to make about one pint of syrup,” he said. “This year, it is taking me about one pound of propane to boil off one gallon of sap.”
Sap must be refrigerated or cooked down immediately (it will spoil). It can also be frozen, which offers the added benefit of allowing ice to be removed, thereby reducing the amount of time the sap needs to be cooked.
The magic in making maple syrup begins at the stove.
“When you first start cooking the sap, there is no color, smell or flavor to it,” Simerly said. “As you cook it down, it gets darker and you can smell that maple syrup smell and you can taste it.”
He stores his final product in Mason jars in the refrigerator, and this year, he is planning to can it.
“It is a simple process, but it takes time,” Simerly said. “But to me, it’s worth it—it tastes better than what you can buy in the store.”
For more information about maple sugaring, Simerly recommends the website www.tapmytree.com.
Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a freelance writer and naturalist living on Walden’s Ridge, whose writing interests include conservation, outdoor travel and sustainable living. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.