Volunteer Sharon Hedrick constantly stirs and frequently checks the temperature of maple syrup nearing completion. When finished, the syrup will turn a slight amber color and "sheet" off a spoon. Photo by Joyce Bupp

Few things are more historically iconic to late winter than horse-drawn sleighs hauling barrels of maple sap out of snow-covered woodlands, while clouds of steam billow from wood-fired evaporators.

In more recent times of commercial maple syrup production, sleighs and horses have been replaced by miles of plastic tubing snaking through stands of maple trees and gas-fired boilers cooking down thousands of gallons of sap per day.

But, how do you go about “sugaring” if you have just a few maple trees in your backyard and would like to try boiling down some do-it-yourself maple syrup?

A recent weekend program hosted at York County’s Nixon Park featured hands-on demonstrations for small-scale syrup making, from sap collection to sheeting syrup from a spoon to test for doneness. The park’s annual maple-sugaring demonstrations have become a favorite of both interested visitors and the dozens of volunteers who return year after year to assist in the traditional process.

“As soon as it began to warm (in) the beginning of February, we began collecting sap,” said park naturalist Brandon Pentz. He oversees and supports about 100 volunteers who assist with a variety of tasks in preparing for and conducting the annual sugaring event.

“It got cooler, and then it warmed up again. We collected a lot of sap. The weather was ideal this year,” Pentz said.

Local Maple Sugar

Nixon Park, located just outside the southern York County borough of Jacobus, is heavily wooded with a variety of hardwood species, including red maple. The sugar maples of traditional New England syrup making do not grow in southern Pennsylvania, so red maples are a local alternate for sap collecting.

“We don’t tap any tree smaller than 10 inches in diameter, because they’re not mature enough,” Pentz said. “You have to make sure the tree is healthy.”

He noted that a healthy, mature maple, under good conditions, can yield up to a gallon of sap each day. Cold nights and warming days are necessary for good sap flow, conditions that kept the sap flowing through February and into early March.

A total of 31 of the park’s red maples were drilled and fitted with spiles, or taps, that drain the sap from the trees. Each spile in the park’s tapped maples fed into a clean, empty, plastic milk jug — a familiar container readily available to any backyard syrup maker.

The spiles and jugs were affixed to trees abutting the park’s Bird Hollow Trail, with a sap-boiling demonstration set up not far from the collection area. An “arch,” or concrete block firepit, supported the cooking pan, which was kept fired and boiling sap with a supply of dried wood that volunteers had cut ahead of time.

Sap from red maples contains a lower percentage of sugar, only 1 to 2%, as compared to the 4% in sugar maples.

“It takes about 80 gallons of red maple sap to make a gallon of maple syrup,” Pentz said.

Sap from sugar maples, with naturally higher sugar levels of about 4%, will yield approximately double the volume of finished syrup as that cooked down from the less-sweet sap of red maples.

“We need at least 25 gallons to be enough to fill our boiling pan,” Pentz said

The wood-fired processing takes about 7 to 8 hours to boil down each batch of sap.

Event Attendees Get to See Sugaring Process Up Close

At the park’s weekend event, a steady stream of visitors hiked the 1-mile round-trip trail walk to observe the entire process, from the initial sap boil-down site in the woods, to the syrup finishing at the park’s visitor’s center. Along the trail, images of pages from the children’s book, “Maple Syrup from the Sugarhouse,” by Laurie Lazzaro Knowlton, were displayed on signs to help younger attendees understand the process.

Once the sap volume had been concentrated enough over the arch firepit, the finishing process was completed on the center’s outside porch, using typical, kitchen-type, stainless-steel kettles over a small, hot plate-type burner.

Syrup thickening down in the finished stage can scorch quickly, so volunteers kept a constant stirring vigil, while explaining the process to visitors. As the sap nears the final stage, it “sheets” off a spoon in a fashion that veteran syrup makers learn to recognize as indicating it is near completion.

Sap boils at 219 degrees Fahrenheit, seven degrees higher than the boiling point of water. Volunteer Sharon Hedrick frequently checked the finishing syrup as she stirred the boiling liquid, explaining that it turned a slight amber color once it reached the finished stage, at about 66% sugar.

The complete processing for a batch of syrup is about 14 hours. Thus, maple syrup making is not for the impatient.

“Be prepared to put in the time commitment necessary,” Pentz advises those considering trying their hand at small-scale syrup making.

“Once you have the equipment, making syrup is not a complicated process, but it is time-consuming,” he said. “Reach out to family and friends to help with the time-consuming effort. You might even find some hidden talents.”

Pentz said that Nixon Park’s four staffers would never be able to conduct the annual sugaring demonstration without the dedicated effort of dozens of volunteers. It especially attracts people who enjoy being outside and participating in self-sufficiency and home food-processing pursuits.

Although Pentz expected the volunteers would do one more boiling after March 7, the fourth day of demonstrations, a predicted warming trend was expected to halt the sap collection process.

“Once the trees start to bud, the sap becomes unpalatable,” Pentz said.

Collected syrup must be held under 40 degrees until the boiling starts, or it will quickly spoil. Sap collected for the park’s demonstrations is kept under refrigeration until adequate amounts are gathered to boil down a batch of syrup.

Finished maple syrup is strained through a filter to remove a tiny, gritty residue called “sugar sand,” or “niter.” Once filtered, the syrup is brought back to the 219-degree boiling point, then sealed in sterilized syrup containers or glass Mason jars.

After lugging firewood and containers of sap and then standing for hours over steaming sap as well as stirring kettles of finishing syrup for long periods at a time, the park’s sugaring volunteers are rewarded with a small share of the sweet, syrupy “fruit” of their labors.

For those wishing to try their hand at backyard syrup making, information and supplies can be found online, including through Amazon. The website mapletrader.com is helpful, including how-to information, a community forum for sharing knowledge, and classified postings of used equipment available for sale.

Joyce Bupp is a freelance writer in York County, Pennsylvania.

Joyce Bupp is a freelance writer in York County, Pennsylvania.