Tap into some syrup of your own

If you live in the northern United States, from Maine to Minnesota and as far south as Kentucky, you can try making your own maple syrup. The best time to start is mid-February, but anytime before new buds show (about mid-April) is fine. Here's what you'll need:

*A maple tree that's at least 12 inches wide, four feet up the trunk. Any maple will do, but sugar maples are best.

*7/16-inch drill bit and drill.

*Metal tap, also called a spout or spile. (See below on where to buy supplies.)

*Sap-collecting container. A well-rinsed plastic gallon milk jug works fine.

*Pot for boiling the sap; it should hold at least a gallon.

*Candy thermometer.

*Clean cloth for filtering the syrup.

*Glass jars with lids, for the syrup.

*An adult's enthusiastic cooperation. Drilling and boiling is for grown-ups.

First, find a maple. Look for the distinctive, rounded crown of a maple tree. Examine the end of a branch. How do the side twigs grow out from a central stem? Are the two side twigs directly opposite each other? Or do they alternate up the stem? Maple trees have "opposite branching." But so do a few other trees. You need one more test.

Look at the bark. Sugar maples have light-to-dark-gray bark that is divided into irregular strips. The strips often curl to one side.

Once you've located a maple, find a clean spot about three feet up the trunk. Drill a hole two to three inches deep at a slightly upward angle. Tap in the spout.

For a sap container, cut a hole near the top of a clean plastic milk jug. The hole should be just big enough to fit over the spile. A notch on the spile should hold the jug in place. Leave the jug's top on; that helps keep bugs and things from falling into the sap. You can also buy traditional metal buckets or special plastic bags.

Now you need below-freezing nights and above-freezing days to get a flow or "run" of sap. One tap can produce up to three gallons a day, so keep checking. It varies from day to day, tree to tree.

Sap should be boiled within 24 hours, or it may sour. You can keep it a little longer in the refrigerator.

Note: Boiling sap indoors creates a lot of steam, which can damage wallpaper and discolor ceilings and walls. If your stove vents outside, turn on the fan. Some people boil sap outside in a shallow metal pan on a gas-fired barbecue grill. Do the final boil inside, on the stove.

Check the boiling sap frequently, and make sure it doesn't bubble over or scorch. As the sap gets lower in the pot, start checking the temperature. (To reduce the risk of scorching, transfer the boiled-down sap to a smaller pot.) When it reaches 219 degrees F. (or seven degrees above the boiling point of water at your altitude), it's done. One tap may produce 15 to 25 gallons of sap a season, which will become only two or three pints of syrup.

Carefully filter the hot syrup through a damp, clean cloth into a clean jar. Cover; let cool. Store it in the refrigerator, or longer in the freezer (the syrup will thicken, not freeze).

S.H.

Bob's Sugar House in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, sells spouts ($1.25, plus shipping), buckets ($9), and other supplies by mail. Telephone: (207) 564-2145.

Or go to: www.mainemaplesyrup.com

If you live in a maple-sugaring region, try contacting your local agricultural extension service, or look in the Yellow Pages under 'Maple Syrup Supplies.'

The North American Maple Syrup Producers Manual, published online by Ohio State University, has lots more information, including maple-identification drawings and descriptions:

www.ag.ohio-state.edu/~ohioline/b856/

Two helpful books for beginners:

'Amateur Sugar Maker,' by Noel Perrin (University Press of New England/Dartmouth College, 1986); 'Backyard Sugarin',' by Rink Mann (Countryman Press, 1992).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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