From Sap to Syrup: How Maple Syrup is Made

By Heifer International

Last Updated: December 26, 2018

From Sap to Syrup: How Maple Syrup is Made

Picture a cold, bright day in February. Temperatures rise above freezing during the day but dip below freezing at night, a sure sign to maple sugarers that it’s time to tap the trees!

The sap of a sugar maple tree (Acer saccharum) is 98 percent water and 2 percent sugar—and it is that 2 percent that will yield a delicious sweetener. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, and it is simply by boiling the sap to remove water and thus concentrate the sugar that makes maple syrup.  

Here's how that delicious maple syrup makes it from tree sap to the sweet breakfast ambrosia on your plate!

A stand of sugar maples at Rutland Farm, Mass.

Find it

Identify a stand of sugar maples. Pro tip: mark sugar maple trees before they lose their leaves in the fall, since identifying the trees by their leaves is much easier than identifying solely by the bark.

Tap it

On the south side of the tree, drill a 3-inch hole about 4 feet above the ground at a slight upward angle. Use a 7/16-inch drill bit. Use a hammer to gently tap in a spile, or spout. You can tap one spile for every 10 inches of tree diameter.

Sap from a tapped sugar maple drips into a bucket.

Hang on

Hang collection containers from the spiles. Coffee cans, milk jugs and buckets all work well for this.

Drip, drip, drip! Sap will fill the bucket as pressure builds in the tree from the alternating freeze and thaw temperatures.

Elizabeth Joseph, garden and education coordinator at Heifer Farm, shows off freshly cooked maple syrup.

Cook it

Boil the sap indoors on a stovetop or outdoors over a fire. At Heifer Farm, we use a large-scale evaporator in a sugar house.

Sap is officially maple syrup when it reads 66 percent sugar content on a hydrometer or 219 degrees on a candy thermometer.

A jar of clear maple sap next to a jar of amber maple syrup.

Make it last

Strain the hot syrup through felt or cheesecloth. Bottle the syrup while it’s hot, or can it in a boiling water bath for longer storage. Store at room temperature in a cool, dark location or in the refrigerator or freezer.

Eat it!

Enjoy on pancakes, waffles and French toast. Real maple syrup is also great for sweetening beverages and flavoring salad dressing, vegetables, meat and baked goods.


More Maple Sugaring Facts

  • You can tap other species of maple trees, but the sugar maple has the highest concentration of sugar in the sap.
  • Flavor and translucence dictate maple syrup grades. Generally, the time of year the sap is collected determines the grade—the lighter grades are produced earlier in the season and the darker grades are produced later.
  • Pure maple syrup comes from trees, while most pancake syrups are made from high fructose corn syrup and flavorings. These syrups cannot include the word “maple” on their label.
  • To substitute maple syrup for granulated white sugar in cooking or baking, use 2/3 cup of maple syrup for every 1 cup of sugar. Reduce the quantity of liquid in the recipe by 3 tablespoons, and lower the baking temperature by 25 degrees.
  • Maple sugaring will not hurt a healthy tree.
  • Taps are removed when the weather warms, sap turns yellow and tree buds begin to open.
  • Canada produces more than 75 percent of the world’s maple syrup.