April 11, 2016
Tapping the Urban Maple, and Boiled Cider
Last year, I read about tapping trees that are NOT sugar maple at the blog of Anna Hess, and I resolved to tap the handful of trees on our small city lot. We have two Sycamore Maples and two Norway Maples. I had no idea what to expect, but I thought it would be fun to try. The easiest way I could come up with to test the waters was a piece of metal tube stuck in a hole, with a length of tubing run down to a container sitting on the ground.
I bought a length of 3/8" stainless tube from McMaster, and bent and cut some sections using tools at work.
McMaster also supplied some 3/8" ID tygon tubing. Probably cheaper to buy at the homebrew store, but I'm pretty lazy.
and for collection containers I used the rectangular plastic carboys I normally use but once a year to transport cider from Maine to Somerville.
In mid-February, daytime temps were (weirdly) already frequently above freezing, so I figured we better get on with the tapping even though it was much earlier than typical dates cited for the area online.
We drilled a hole maybe 60mm deep in the south face of each tree
Stuffed in the metal tubes,
dropped the carboy on the ground, and stuck the end of the tube into it.
Of course the next day there was high wind and it blew the empty carboys all over the yard!
I meant to tie them to the trees, but never got around to it. Once they get some sap in them they don't blow down as much.
We left the taps in for four or five weeks, during which time the sap never really ran all that heavy. We only got a significant quantity from our biggest sycamore maple, and a little from the smaller sycamore maple. The Norways put out close to zero. We sampled cold maple sap straight from the tree, which apparently is getting trendy as a health drink, in the same vein as coconut water. It tasted just like water.
Each saturday, we went outside and dumped the carboys into a big pot and slowly boiled down in the kitchen. It wasn't all that much sap (about 10L at most), so I didn't worry too much about putting the water into the air in the house or the gas I burned evaporating the water. Just cooked it on medium heat with the exhaust fan on low all day.
When it got down to a liter or so of liquid, I strained it through a fine stainless sieve into a small pot.
This was boiled down further until it looked thick enough, then I strained it through the seive lined with a piece of muslin.
The first week's sap cooked down into a whitish, light colored syrup which had a strange flavor.
The following weeks' sap cooked down to dark brown syrup with a closer to usual taste, but still quite different from regular maple syrup. I stupidly forgot about the last week's syrup while it was in final cookdown and I burned the crap out of it. Took forever to clean that pot. Oopsie.
If I hadn't burned the last week's charge, I think total volume of syrup would have been about 500ml, though I cooked it down a little too much so it is pretty thick. Still tastes weird. More just sugary, without that maple-ey flavor you expect in maple syrup. But with a little bit of a strange flavor that is hard to place.
We've eaten some, but no one particularly likes it. I've been using it to sweeten other things (e.g. whipped cream).
One minor issue in collection was that when the sap was running, a significant quantity would spill out from around the tubing. So maybe a tapered tap or tapered drill bit would help with sealing the tap better at the bark interface. We also got a lot of drowned ants in the carboys and tubes toward the end of our experiment. These come out easily if you pour through the fine seive going from carboy to pot.
So while yield was ok, the product itself wasn't worth the trouble. I think the sap to syrup ratio was about the 40:1 that is often quoted for maple. I doubt we will tap these trees again next year. They do an urban tapping and boil down at the nearby Growing Center in Somerville, but I haven't tasted the output from it and I don't know what kind of trees they tap down there. My friend Ben's parents collect and process quite a bit of maple from trees around where they live in Five Islands, ME, and it turns out great.
For some years I've been meaning to try cooking down some of the sweet cider we make every year in Maine with a group of friends and acquaintances. I've bought plenty of Boiled Cider from Wood's Cider Mill in VT. They make a fantastic product, and I prefer it to maple on pancakes and waffles. It really boosts apple pie if you put some in the filling in place of sugar. Once I asked them by email what apples go into the product, and this is what they had to say:
Holly- We usually use a large percentage of Macintosh. At least 2/3rds. Also might have some empire, golden delicious. macoun, possibly northern spy, pound sweet, a very few red delicious, and some wild apples. But mainly Macs for consistent flavor. What kinds do you grow? Graft on some Ashmeads Kernel if you like tart apples. Willis
The other week I fetched a few bottles of cider from the deep freeze for Buster's birthday party, and brought up an extra 4L of cider to try boiling down. One of the great things about apple syrup is that you only need to reduce it 7:1 rather than 40:1 like maple. I bet you could can the syrup too, and thus keep it preserved in concentrated form on the shelf rather than taking up a bunch of freezer space.
With this first cider cookdown, I boiled it for some hours one afternoon until it looked thick enough. It was actually still pretty liquid, but you have to anticipate how much it will thicken on cooling. Well, it turns out I cooked it too far and it turned to a consistency thicker than honey in the fridge. But it is easy to spread with a knife on pancakes and tastes wonderful. From 4L of cider I filled up a half liter jar with syrup, with about a 1/5L extra which I traded for some homemade fermented kraut with my neighbor.
Compared to the maple, the apple syrup was much easier to make (once you have cider of course, as we nearly always do), and tasted great. We'll surely make more of this. Might be a good way to use up extra cider at our cider get-together if in future we have another huge fruit harvest year like last year. We could cook down 20L at a time over a turkey fryer outside.
Ah, apples give so much. Pretty flowers, fresh eating, sauce, pies, sweet cider, hard cider, aftershave, and now syrup. I'd like to try vinegar too, but have not got around to it. If you have made cider vinegar yourself, any useful tips? I could start with either sweet or hard cider.