When Brookfield resident Mel Tracy wants maple syrup, he doesn’t go to Tischler’s to buy it. He goes outside and gets it from the maple trees outside his home.
Technically, he gets the sap from the tree and then spends hours boiling it down to syrup, which eventually winds up on a stack of pancakes — the tasty reward for his efforts.
“I love it,” said Tracy. “The kids will eat a little bit of it, but then it’s back to Aunt Jemima.”
Tracy, a member of the Brookfield Conservation Commission and an avid outdoorsman, admits most people might not think the effort is worth it — it’s a lot easier going to the grocery store to buy a small flask of pure maple syrup than collecting gallons of sap and spending the better part of an afternoon turning it into sweet, caramel-colored syrup.
But that hasn’t prevented Tracy from engaging in this late-winter ritual for the past decade.
“Any kind of maple tree will give sap,” said Tracy, although the quality differs from species to species.
Sugar maples are prime for tapping, while it will takes more sap from other species like silver maples or box elders (yes, a species of maple) to generate syrup. Tracy has a sugar maple on his property and another on the parkway outside his home, along with three big silver maples.
Still, you need a lot of sap to make syrup. In the case of a sugar maple, Tracy said, it will take about 30 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Getting that much syrup from other maple species will take 40-50 gallons, he said.
But depending on the size of the tree, you can get a pretty staggering amount of sap out of a maple. From a tree measuring 20 to 25 inches in diameter, you can hammer in 3-5 taps and get it in buckets.
“If there’s a big up-welling, you can get 40 to 50 gallons,” he said.
But Tracy doesn’t deal in those kinds of quantities.
“I usually get three or four gallons and boil it down, which will get me about a pint or a pint and a half,” he noted.
The peak time for tapping maple trees varies from year to year by as much as a month, depending on the weather, said Tracy. And if the winter isn’t a particularly cold one, like last year, trees don’t yield as much sap.
“It’s very climate dependent,” he said.
The location of the trees also appears to matter somewhat. The trees on the parkway tend to be ready sooner than the one in his yard. Sometime in January, Tracy will head outside with a handful of taps and a drill. First he’ll drill a hole about three-eighths of an inch in diameter into the trunk of the tree and then hammer in a metal tap.
If the time is right and it’s sunny outside, a clear, watery substance will begin to trickle from the tap. If it’s not time yet, he waits until he sees the sap running. Once it starts, he places a plastic milk jug, secured by a hook, under the tap.
On a sunny day when the sap is running, Tracy said, he’ll come home to find the jugs overflowing. While you can actually drink the sweet liquid from the tree (“It’s exactly like water,” he said, “with a sweet taste at the end.”), Tracy pours the liquid (he mixes sap from different species together) into a blue enameled pot and fires up his grill.
The boiling process is a bit of a pain.
“If I do four gallons, it’ll take three to four hours,” he said. “Then I take it in the kitchen and boil it another hour to hour and a half. That’s just for four gallons. If I did 20 gallons, it’d be a real long process.”
Once all of the water is boiled out, the temperature will begin to rise and the clear liquid will begin turning a caramel color. But you have to really monitor the liquid. Once it hits 217 degrees, you have to take it off the heat, said Tracy, or it will start to crystallize.
Pounding taps into the trees apparently doesn’t do great harm to them. Commercial maple syrup operations tap trees for decades. While it does result in a hole, he said, it grows over within a year.