Tapping Trees and Making Maple Syrup

The Albion College Whitehouse Nature Center put on an event so people could learn how to tap trees and make maple syrup. Thanks to David Green, Whitehouse Nature Center Director, and a few helpful Albion College students, the Syrup Hike event was open to students and the public.

The event consisted of two tour times that allowed several students, community members and families to observe the process of producing maple syrup.

Participants met at the Whitehouse Nature Center. They were then guided by Green and Abby Voglewede, a senior from Oxford, Indiana, to sugarbush. Sugarbush is the term used for a group of maple trees. Taking a trail to the left of the Nature Center building, participants crossed over the bridge and followed the next path parting to the right. After walking on what Green jokingly suggested would be a “10-mile hike,” the path came to another right turn where the already tapped trees were spotted.

After the five-minute walk and a climb through a bit of brush and bramble, Voglewede explained the time-consuming process that produces the sweet and sticky consistency of the syrup that covered the wonderfully made pancakes afterward. The audience gathered around an already marked tree to observe.

To start, she had a drill already marked with a two-inch length. Going no farther than the two-inch mark, Voglewede drilled at a slight upward angle into the maple tree. Next, came the spile; a small hollow tube used as a spout for the tree’s sap. Using a hammer she slightly tapped the spile into the drilled hole until it was firmly placed.

“Super easy and not very complex to take in and take out,” Voglewede commented.

Lastly, she attached a metal bucket around the spile so that the sap would drain right off the tree into it.

The tree tapping method that Voglewede demonstrated is not the only way tapping can be done. There are other available supplies that could be used, including tubing, milk jugs, large plastic buckets, and even bags. As Voglewede passed around flyers with multiple pictures and facts about sap trees and maple syrup, she went on to explain the different processes that can be used.

One important lesson learned is that the bucket that catches the syrup needs to be covered. After all, the idea of bark, bugs and bird feces finding a way to contaminate the collected tree sap is not just disturbing, it would add to the production process.

Voglewede commented on how she found earthworms and a slug during her first tapping experience. “It just adds flavor” Green went on to joke. (Don’t worry, though, any worms and slugs will be filtered out.)

Maple syrup may appear brown and sticky, but what was seen in the buckets straight from the tree looked like a colorless liquid. In fact, all it consists of is water and sugar. An average maple tree will contain a sugar concentration of around 2.5 percent. Being told this percentage, it makes sense that to make a little bit of syrup, a lot of sap needs to be collected — depending on sugar content, try around 40 gallons of tree sap in order to make one gallon of syrup.

The more the sap flows, the faster the syrup can be made. Since the weather consisted of a chilly breeze and the temperature hadn’t warmed up yet, the sap was not flowing. Voglewede assured visitors that the sap would start to flow more towards the afternoon. With the spile placed on the sun side of the tree trunk, the sap is able to warm up faster. A term used for the process when the sap flow freezes and then flows and goes back and forth is known as reset.

After collecting some of the sap, participants headed back to the nature center building to learn the last step in the tapping process. Voglewede helped create an evaporator made of cinderblocks as a pit for two tubs to be held above the fire. The heat from the fire rises up to boil the sap. The sap will then, after a lengthy period of time, begin to emit steam and turn into a more solidified substance. Without the evaporator, the sugar from the sap would not be separated from the evaporated water enough to turn into the sweet sticky substance or syrup. Evan Rieth, a junior from Three Oaks, Michigan, helped out with the event by supervising the evaporator.

An evaporator is used to separate the water from the sugar.

The wood smoke smell and the sweet maple syrup aroma drifted about the evaporator as Rieth told his own story. Rieth was greatly informative regarding details of the evaporator process with his own experience making maple syrup and how it was a procedure best done outside due to all the steam that is emitted. The process can even be done on a grill or a deep fryer. In some major companies, the use of a reverse osmosis machine is used, but with such a small amount being made at places such as Whitehouse Nature center, the machine isn’t necessary. Although it is time-consuming, the process is rewarding as participants are able to go inside to taste the final product.

In order to protect the trees, Voglewede gave a few warnings when it comes to tapping correctly. One warning involves the seasons. When a tree is in bloom, under no circumstance should someone tap into it. It is not just that the tree needs its nutrients, but the sap would be bitter. Another warning is that after pulling the tap from the tree at the end of the syrup season, the hole left from the spile should be left to heal on its own. Sticking in a rubber stopper, or even a stick, could cause damage and infection. To have successful sap collection in the future, one must take care of the trees.  

The maple trees out at the Whitehouse Nature center are not the only type of tree that can be tapped for a delicious purpose. Trees including sycamore, walnut, box elder, alder, beechnut, hickory, black birch, silver birch and paper birch can all be tapped. However, the sugar content and sweet taste will vary in every species.

So much sap to make so little syrup. No wonder a small container of decently produced syrup costs a bit extra compared to corn syrup varieties.

Participants consumed pancake after pancake, as Kaitlyn Hibbs, a senior from Parma, Michigan, flipped them off the griddle. There were multiple syrups to taste test. Although Canada produces around 80 percent of the world’s supply of maple syrup, the ones provided during this event were all from surrounding communities.

Photos by Jessica Behrman

About Jessica Behrman 44 Articles
Jessica is a senior from Fremont, Indiana, with a goal of one day becoming a science writer. She loves the environment, anything dark chocolate and an adventurous story.

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