Jim Fruth is a gatherer of maple sap, a maker of syrups and jams, and a fruit grower in northern Minnesota. In fact, he grows over 2,000 pounds of fruit annually on just half an acre at Brambleberry Farm in Pequot Lakes. Jim recently presented a workshop on maple syrup for beginners for Happy Dancing Turtle's annual "Back to Basics" gathering. He makes and sells more than 20 kinds of jams and jellies made from fruit grown on his farm.
He provides these pointers for beginners:
The tools of the trade:
- Spiles (called taps when they are in the tree) can be made from dry elderberry branches, or metal or plastic tubing, or can be purchased commercially
- A large thermometer that can go to a high temperature
- A 7/16 standard drill bit
- Containers for sap. These can be traditional sap buckets or bags, plastic pails, milk cartons, etc.
- A wide but shallow boiling/evaporating pan
- Fine filters
- A hydrometer.
- A hydrometer cup.
- Thin hose (if using a hose collection system)
- Tap holes should be approximately three inches deep (or less if the tree is possibly hollow). Tap holes should also slant upward into the tree at approximately 7 degrees so sap runs out. Though thinner trees can be successfully tapped, the industry standard is not to tap trees smaller than 10 inches around. If a tree has been tapped before, it should be tapped three inches higher and in one direction from the last hole so that holes spiral around the tree and don't intersect.
- Sap begins to run when the temperature reaches about 35 degrees. It stops at about 45 degrees. Most literature suggests that sap runs best when nighttime temperatures are very low and daytime temperatures are above freezing.
- Once trees start to bud tapping should come to an end. Some maples—such as silver maple—naturally have big buds. Sugar maples have tiny buds.
- Sap should be collected daily, and any sap that isn't going to be processed in a reasonable amount of time should be poured out to avoid fermentation.
- Boil sap at a depth of 1 ½ to 2 inches in order to evaporate it more quickly. This results in less boiling time, lighter-colored syrup and an overall better product with less work.
- The main evaporation should be done outdoors to prevent moisture problems indoors.
- The goal is to boil the sap that starts at 2-5% sugar content until it reaches 65.5%. Sugar content can be determined using a hydrometer (according to instructions) or by monitoring boiling temperature. Syrup at 65.5% sugar concentration will boil at 7 degrees above the boiling point of water. Accounting for local elevation that’s about 217 degrees Fahrenheit. (In school we are taught that water boils at 212 degrees F but that only happens at sea level with an air pressure of 30” mercury.)
- After the sap is boiled into syrup the minerals that the trees absorbed precipitate out of the solution. This is called “sugar sand” and should be filtered out.
When he talked to David Harrington (who is himself an experienced syruper) and Maggie Montgomery on the Morning Show, Jim explained that there are 5 kinds of maple trees, and most people tap strictly sugar maples. Jim taps silver maple, sugar maple, and amur maple...but mostly boxelder! He told us about a taste test that compared his boxelder blend against award-winning syrup from Vermont--and his was the clear winner.
Our full interview with Jim Fruth is below, including his secret for making highbush cranberry syrup that doesn't smell like old sox (don't boil it!).
Be sure to check out the slide show above, with materials provided by Jim Fruth and photos from Dave Harrington's home sugar shack. Here also is an inspiring video about Jim Fruth and Brambleberry Farm.