Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Maple sugaring step 2: tree tapping

If you read our Maple Blog last week, you know how to complete the first step of making maple syrup: identifying a sugar maple from other species. So, now what?

Tapping a tree at the NH Maple Experience.
To get that sweet sap out of the tree, you need to “tap” the tree. That means drilling a hole through the bark to get to the sap. Timing and technique are key when tapping trees. You want to be sure to tap when the sap is flowing in the tree – when the nights are still cold, but daytime temps rise above freezing.

Here are some notes from Rocks Estate manager Nigel Manley about proper technique for tapping sugar maple trees to collect sap:

The first year I sugared I made a couple of novice mistakes, including failing to notice the snow depth when I went out to tap the trees. 

The snow that year was really deep and I was using a brace and bit to drill the holes. The easiest way to use the tool is to lean against it while drilling. This I did and got 120 buckets hung on the trees. Then the weather turned nice and the sap ran through the trees.

The warmer weather also melted the deep snow. Within 2 weeks of tapping, the snow level had dropped at least 2 feet. This meant that the buckets I’d placed earlier, now brimming with heavy sap, were well above my head. In removing the buckets to collect the sap, I took a bath in cold sap more than once. The locals had a good laugh at the British greenhorn trying his best to make syrup.

Lesson learned: in snowy years, tap trees at snow level, as it makes the gathering so much easier.

Most guests to our New Hampshire Maple Experience programs ask if taking sap out of the trees hurts them. The short answer is NO. If trees are tapped responsibly, removing the sap does not harm the trees. (As a general rule a tree should be at least 10 inches in diameter before it’s tapped. Trees between 20 and 25 inches can support two taps. Trees over 25 inches in diameter can handle a maximum of three taps. You should also be sure not to tap a tree too close to tap holes from previous years – at least two feet directly above or below old holes or at least six inches to the side.)

When a tree is tapped, the tree actually walls off the hole so that bacteria cannot get in. After the hole is walled off, sap will also not flow out of the hole. That’s why it’s crucial to time tapping just right. If a sugar maker taps too early, the hole may "dry out" before the sap has much chance to run. Too late, and you’ll miss the first sap runs of the season.

Many modern sugar makers now use plastic tubing, rather than metal buckets, to collect the sap. The tubing provides a bit more leeway in the timing of tapping, as bacteria has a hard time getting into this system and the tap holes don't dry out as quickly.

To see a demonstration of tree tapping, check out our video of the process, filmed at The Rocks Estate. 

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