The Sweet Life: How I Cooked Up Homemade Maple Syrup and Found Happiness

    Upgrade your Sunday morning pancake game with sap straight from the tap

    Some people stress-eat or hoard shoes. Me? One evening about a month ago, when a foot of snow lay outside my bedroom window and I could not face another night of insomniac doomscrolling, I clicked “buy now” on a $150 maple tree-tapping kit.

    Had I ever tapped a maple tree before? No sir! Did I even know what a maple tree looked like? I can identify the Canadian flag, does that count? No matter: that’s what YouTube is for, I figured — and so what if I did wind up making the world’s most expensive maple syrup? It had to be cheaper than therapy! Judging by the “low stock” notice on the kit, I was not alone in my reasoning.

    Sure enough, a few days later, my Instagram stories had filled up with wide-eyed videos of friends, all bundled up, toting buckets into the forest. You have to laugh: first came the sourdough, then the tie dye; now, apparently, we had collectively entered the maple syrup phase of pandemic living. Free will is an illusion!

    And really, when life becomes an endless time loop, why deny yourself a novel pleasure? (Or another excuse for pancakes?) The nights were still frosty, but the days were lengthening and getting warmer — ideal tapping temps. My family and I had grown bored with hibernation. Soon buds would be swelling, the sap would be running, and we’d be ready to meet it. The whole urge felt a little primeval, and for good reason, it turns out. America’s Indigenous peoples, who consider maple syrup a gift from the Creator, were this land’s original sap savants — so much so that they named the third full moon of the year, Iskigamizige-giizis (aka The Sap Moon) in honor of the stuff. Without realizing, my family had inadvertently synced up with one of Earth’s great cycles.

    Once our gear arrived, it was time to get to work. Happily, you don’t need much to get into the sugaring racket: a cordless drill with a 7/16 bit, a hammer, a few sturdy lidded buckets, some food-grade storage containers, a large stock pot (though a hotel pan would be a smart investment), and a place to cook. I added this collection to the stainless steel spiles — otherwise known as taps — I’d ordered and set out to do some sap sucking. I later learned that a bunch of empty plastic milk jugs work well for storage, and a friend who grew up in Missouri texted me to say that her father prefers to fashion his own spiles from staghorn sumag twigs. But whatever my prepackaged Internet spiles lacked in backwoods cred, they more than made up for in ease of use.

    Admittedly, the project would have gotten off the ground a zillion times faster if I’d had the foresight to identify a few maple trees in the fall and not in the dead of winter, when everything in the forest was bare and grey and looked exactly alike. But with the aid of a few online tutorials, my husband and I soon gleaned what to keep an eye out for: trees with vertically grooved, sometimes flaking, grey-brown bark, opposite-branching growth, and — if we were lucky — a pile of dried maple leaves scattered underneath. Sugar maples were our holy grail — because as their name suggests, they generally produce the sap that’s highest in sugar (about 2.5% to 3%). But black maples are a close second and silver maples, red maples, Norway maples, and even box elders (which are also a member of the Acer family) will all suffice. In fact, you don’t even need a maple tree! Birches are also aces for syrup — just ask the Russians — and some enterprising folks also tap alders, walnuts, and butternuts.

    Bucket brigade: Lidded containers catch the rising sap. (Photo: Nadine Mitchell / Alamy)

    Despite this variety of options, I had very low expectations. The instructional booklet that came with our overpriced tapping kit informed me that, best case scenario, one had to boil down approximately 40 gallons of sap — which flows from the tree as clear and nearly flavorless as water — to produce one gallon of syrup. We’d tapped three trees that we were…pretty sure…were maples? By that measure, I projected our yield might be about a half-a-cup. But hey, it passed the time!

    So, when I checked our buckets after the first day (a process I had privately named “milking the trees”) I was surprised to find them nearly overflowing. What’s the sap equivalent of paydirt? Well whatever that is, it’s what we had going on. All I’d done was stuck a spigot in a hole — but damn! I felt alive.

    In fact, it soon became apparent that our biggest problem would not be a measly maple syrup yield but an insufficient storage and cooking operation. Once it’s out of the tree, sap is (again, like milk) a perishable product — meaning it needs to be kept cool and processed within a week. Within days, my family’s haul had topped 20 gallons and, having outgrown even our overflow refrigerator in the garage, we started stacking storage buckets in wheelbarrows packed with the last remnants of the yard’s snow.

    As gentleman-maple tappers, I’d figured we’d do most of our cooking on the weekend — preferably on the grill, with a cocktail close at hand. But clearly Mother Nature had other things in mind. We needed a new plan. My husband guzzled maple sap like Gatorade after his morning runs, at tea time we subbed maple sap for water in our kettle of Earl Grey — I even begged a SCOBY off a generous neighbor and started brewing maple sap kombucha. And for two weeks straight, every heat producing source in our home and yard was commandeered: the gas grill, a Big Green Egg, a turkey fryer, a portable electric burner, the kitchen range. Let me boil it down for you: we have done a hell of a lot of boiling. While I have not yet seen our utility bills, I believe I can confidently say that the three quarts of sweet, nutty, amber syrup we have thus far produced is quite literally liquid gold.

    The swelling leaf buds at the tips of the branches mean the sap will soon be waning. The Egg Moon is on its way (though we go to the supermarket for those). And as the days lengthen, it’s nearly time to trade my evening trudge through the muddy woods for a weeding session in the garden. But our new five-star Sunday morning breakfasts — and bragging rights? Those aren’t going anywhere.

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