Posted by: Sue Spencer | March 1, 2008

From Sap to Syrup

So! What happens once we’ve collected all that sap? Yesterday I had my first opportunity to see the process all the way through, so let me tell you about it.

Sap is quite perishable, so it’s important to get to work quickly. After harvest, we carry the buckets to the makeshift sugar house on our porch, and pour them through a filter to strain out any debris. From there it goes either into the evaporator, or, if there’s overflow, into a storage barrel. The evaporator is a rectangular, stainless steel tank, approximately four feet long, with a spigot near the bottom. It’s heated from underneath by two propane burners.

Once the sap comes to a boil, it gives off a lovely wall of steam. As it condenses, we add more from the overflow barrels. It’s crucial to monitor the level of liquid, lest we have hard candy in the bottom of the pan. This means that if we start the evaporator late in the day, someone is going to be getting up in the middle of the night to check it.

At some point, after many hours, the concentrated sap is deemed ready to come inside for finishing. We mobilize a bucket brigade (or rather, a soup pot brigade!) to transfer the liquid (which is first put through another set of filters) from porch to kitchen. The stainless steel pots are emptied into the finishing pan, a square, stainless steel pan large enough to cover four burners on the stove. We fire up the burners, and the second evaporation begins. By now, the sap has started to take on the color of syrup.

We monitor the level once in a while, skimming the surface with a small piece of wire screen, and adding any overflow sap to the pan as room becomes available. After a few hours, the liquid lets us know that it’s time to watch more carefully. The signal is a layer of small bubbles on the surface, which tends to start in one corner of the finishing pan, then spread to the other three corners. When we see these, we know that we shouldn’t stray far from the stove.

Gradually the layer of small bubbles spreads. We keep skimming, watching for the moment when they completely cover the surface of the pan. When the surface is entirely covered, the bubbles start to rise dramatically. That’s the signal to count slowly to five, and turn the burners off. The syrup is done!

One person fills the pint jugs, sitting on a small stool by the stove, and pouring from the spigot at the bottom of the finishing pan. Another quickly presses a plastic cap down on each, ensuring a good seal, and lines the finished jugs up to cool. Eventually, we will put tags on the jugs, proclaiming that the syrup contains nothing but “sap, fire, and love.”

Sap, fire, and love, yes – and maybe a bit of patience, as well. All in all, I must say, it’s a deeply satisfying endeavor.



  1. For a couple of years when I was a teenager (late 60s) I did the maple sugar thing. The best year was when my partner-in-tapping & I camped by the remnant of a house while tapping an unused sugar bush nearby. We built a fire in a corner of foundation – all that was left of the house – and put our large, metal boiling tub across it. In between sap collecting, one person guarded and fed the fire while the other was free to roam in the woods.

    Tea made with boiling sap is incomparable… As is syrup made over an open fire. It has a distinct smoky flavor.

    Only, after sifting out the sugar sand, we – actually I – did the final boiling down indoor… I did about 20 pints. Then when I went to change a record, the sap boiled over and set the stove on fire – flames reached the ceiling …which I managed to clean up just as my mother got home.

    “Mom, I just set the stove on fire, but it is all cleaned up now.” I said.

    She gave me a bemused look and said, “Fine.”

    We never did get the scorch mark off the ceiling.

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