Family Fun in New Jersey: Maple Sugaring

FAMILY FUN IN NEW JERSEY: Maple sugaring. Yes, any Australians like me will probably say ‘what the heck is that’? Well if you’ve heard of maple syrup, then you’re half way there. Maple sugaring is simply the process of making maple syrup, which is not only interesting to find out about but a fun thing you can do with the entire family.

At this time of the year in New Jersey, many of us are suffering a bad case of cabin fever, after being indoors so much over winter. So in late February and early March, it’s a gift from heaven to find something outdoors you can do with kids that doesn’t involve snow or ice!

A bit about the process of Maple Sugaring

Courtesy of the helpful guides at the Reeves-Reed Arboretum in Summit NJ, our family had lots of fun learning about how maple syrup is made. Basically there are six steps.

Step 1: Identify a Maple Tree

Yep, it’s not surprising to know that maple syrup comes from maple trees. I guess I just never thought about it before. Like many things city folks consume, we have always just bought it at the supermarket without a second thought about how it’s made.

A-sugar-maple-tree-that-is-suitable-for-making-maple-syrup-from-its-sap-new-jersey

One of many sugar maple trees found in northern New Jersey which are used to make maple syrup. Although Canada is better known for maple syrup, the process is conducted on trees in the northern part of New Jersey where the climate is still cold enough for these maple trees to grow and produce sap. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ

Since this is done in winter time only (for reasons that will become apparent), for the newbie, one leafless tree looks like all the rest. Maple trees are a bit different though. They have branches with what’s called opposite branching: the branches are symmetrically arranged. Other trees do not have this feature, so it is easier than you think to identify a maple.

Step 2: Is the maple tree old enough?

Maple sugaring can only be done effectively on trees that are old enough, which means trees have to be at least 40 years old. You can measure the girth of a maple tree trunk to tell this – a 40 year old tree should be at least 10 inches in diameter.

measuring-a-maple-tree-for-maple-sugaring-new-jersey

To assess whether a maple tree is old enough to do maple sugaring, you need to measure its girth. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ

Healthy trees that are this big or bigger, can then be tapped.

Step 3: Tapping the maple tree

Tapping is done with a little silver thing called a spile, which looks a bit like a wine decanter to me. A hole is put into the tree on its southern side because this is the warmest side, and the most likely place that the sap will flow easiest, at this time of the year.

maple-trees-are-tapped-on-the-side-facing-south-new-jersey

When tapping maple trees to get sap to make sugar, it’s best to drill the hole on the southern side. This can be determined by using a compass or just checking the side that the sun is on. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ

Surprisingly, they used an old brace and bit drill to make the hole. That’s a manual hand-held tool (needs no electricity) that my father used, way back when… It’s amazing that they can still be so useful today.

maple-trees-are-tapped-for-sap-using-a-drill-and-spile-new-jersey

Maple trees are tapped for sap to make maple syrup during late winter. A hole is drilled using an old fashioned drill as shown, then the spile, a metal drain is hammered gently into the hole so the sap can drip into an external container. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ

Once the hole’s been made, then a hammer is used to gently knock a spile into the hole. A covered bucket is hung around the spile to collect the sap that drips out.

Step 4: Waiting for the sap to come out

Here’s the interesting bit. Sap will only run out when the conditions are just right. You need to have freezing temperatures at night but above freezing temperatures in the daytime. It’s the continuous fluctuation of these two extremes that makes the sap flow. I’ll let you find out yourselves, how and why the tree’s sap behaves this way, when you go to one of these events.

A-spile-is-used-to-collect-sap-from-sugar-maple-trees-in-new-jersey-to-make-maple-syrup

A metal tool called a spile is used to collect sap from a sugar maple tree in North New Jersey. When the sap moves upwards, the spile catchs the sap and it drips into an external container to be collected at a later time. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ

It is safe to say though, that these ideal weather patterns only occur at a specific time of the year. This is why maple sugaring only occurs during late winter.

Step 5: Collect the sap

Once the sap flows, you collect it daily and refrigerate until you are prepared to cook it. Sap is mostly made of water, so you will need about 10 gallons of sap to make approximately one gallon of syrup. Wow! Who knew?

The sap should be filtered with a coffee filter inside a sieve to get any debris or floaties out before you start cooking it.

Colllected-maple-sap-needs-filtering-to-remove-impurities-new-jersey

Collected sap from maple trees needs to be filtered using a coffee filter and sieve to catch any impurities. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ

And believe me, they do get some floaties. Eek… I do prefer my syrup without the ants, twigs and moth thanks.

Step 6: Cook it up

The filtered sap is placed in a large open pan (like a baking tray) and boiled uncovered for several hours. It makes a lot of steam so you can do it outside on an open grill or fire to avoid humidifying your kitchen. You have to pay attention to this boiling pot otherwise you will overcook it and make a sticky black mess.

Maple-sap-is-boiled-down-to-make-maple-syrup-new-jersey

Maple sap looks much like water and it takes 10 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup by boiling away the water content. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ

Apparently, the sap turns into syrup very quickly. It’s considered done when the temperature on the thermometer reads 219 degrees F. A candy thermometer can be used to measure the temperature.

Now you just bottle it in a sterile container, and you’re ready for the pancakes!

Maple-syrup-made-from-boiled-down-maple-tree-sap-new-jersey

The final product after boiling the maple sap down looks like this! Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ

 Why you should go

Aside from the fact there’s limited things to do outdoors in winter for children that don’t ski or skate, this is a great family experience that you shouldn’t miss, because it:

  • Teaches children about the process, and the labor and energy involved in making something from the land that goes to our tables
  • Includes activities they can participate in
  • Teaches us more about how Native Americans and first settlers interacted
  • Shows us what’s in our local environment
  • Is suitable for all ages although teenagers may just prefer the syrup tasting part, especially if it comes with free pancakes
  • Can be done at plenty of venues
  • Costs very little or is often free

Where to Participate in Maple Sugaring?

Many places around New Jersey hold this event but only during late winter. Near Chatham, maple sugaring activities are held at the Great Swamp Outdoors Education Centre on Saturdays and Sundays in January and February.

Other venues in Northern and Central NJ include:

 

Are there any other places you know of that hold maple sugaring events in New Jersey?

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3 thoughts on “Family Fun in New Jersey: Maple Sugaring

  1. We participated in the maple sugaring a few times.
    Once at Basking Ridge (Lord Sterling Road, nature reserve), once at Chatham (mentioned above), and also at Van Vleck House Montclair. We became “friends of Van Vleck” members, and they offer lots of activities. We have a 3 year old and every fortnight they have a nature centered activity for 3-5 y.o. age group, so I can thoroughly recommend Van Vleck. Come summer there are concerts etc in the gardens, which, come spring and summer should be beautiful, it is all on a few acres (maybe 10 acres) in the middle of Montclair.
    But back to the maple sugaring, you really appreciate why it is as expensive as it is when you see what goes into making it.
    Chris

    • Thanks for the heads up on Van Vleck and Basking Ridge. We haven’t checked out van Vleck house even though I’ve passed it a few times. Our kids are older at 9 and 14 yrs but still worthwhile going there to see what’s on. Our kids already spend too much time indoors, so a good reason to get them outside in the sun and fresh air. Always looking for options to do this. I am using my blog as an excuse with them now on why they have to go somewhere. Often they end up having a good time so well worth while. And you only get these chances once while we live here. Pretty sad if you just spend your time at home-might as well be at home in Sydney! Our daughter had a hoot of a time at the maple sugaring so I’m glad I dragged them out for this:))

  2. We LOVE maple sugaring each spring with the kids! Such a great way to get everyone off the iPad and outside. Last year we picked up this kit: http://www.amazon.com/Maple-Syrup-Spile-Saver-Lines/dp/B00B5579E4/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1388355717&sr=8-3&keywords=maple+taps

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