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Background Information

Pure maple sirup is the product of an evaporation process by which most of the water is removed from the sap collected from a maple tree. Sap is a clear liquid containing sugars and minerals that serve as a tree’s food. Depending on how sweet the sap is, it can take 35 to 50 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple sirup.

During the winter, freezing temperatures create contraction of the vessels in the trees, causing suction that draws more sugar and nutrients in through the roots. Once the weather turns warmer, a freezing-thawing cycle begins in which temperatures rise above the freezing mark during the day and drop below freezing at night. During a thaw, trees' vessels expand, creating pressure that causes sap to flow out of any gaps or holes (such as those made by taps); during a freeze, trees' vessels again contract and draw in more sugar and nutrients. It is during this cycle of expansion and contraction that sirup producers are able to capture the sap. In central Illinois, this cycle usually occurs in mid to late February and lasts until the middle of March. Although the cycle also occurs in the fall, sirup is not produced from this sap because it is not as sweet as the spring sap.

Maple trees are ready to be tapped when they are about 40 years old, or at least 14 inches in diameter. For every 6 inches of diameter, a tree can support an extra tap, but no more than two taps are placed in a single tree. Only a small portion of the tree’s sap is collected, and the tree naturally heals over in the places where holes were drilled.

Step-by-Step Process


First, holes with a 5/16-inch diameter are drilled 1½ inches into the trees for the areas of the timber where there are plastic tubing lines. These tubing taps are placed 6 to 7 feet high on the trees to allow gravity to move the sap downward through the tubes. Vacuum pumps gently suction the sap through these lines into temporary storage. The sap is then either pumped or hauled to a large stainless steel storage tank at the sugarhouse.

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Sean Funk drills a hole...
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Tubing in place...
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Tubing lines running...
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Truck hauling a tank...
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Sap flows from tubing...
 

Next, 4-gallon metal buckets are distributed around the other areas of the timber, with one bucket placed for each tap to be drilled in a tree. Then a hole with a 7/16-inch diameter is drilled 1½ inches into the tree about 4 feet above the ground. A grooved metal spout is inserted into this hole, and a bucket is hung on the spout. As the sap flows through the tree, some will flow into the spout and begin dripping into the buckets. If the sap is dripping quickly, a bucket can be filled in 10 to 12 hours. If weather is favorable for sap flow, each bucket is emptied approximately every other day. Sap gatherers carry two plastic buckets into which they empty the buckets of sap.

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Jonathan Funk drills...
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Hangs a metal bucket...
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Buckets collect sap...
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Stephen Funk pours sap...
   

Then they carry these buckets to the gathering tank and dump the sap into a tank hitched to a small tractor. Once a gathering tank is full, it is driven back to the sugarhouse. The sap is drained from the tank through a filter into the large stainless steel storage tank at the sugarhouse.

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Dump buckets of sap...
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Into the gathering tank...
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Stainless steel storage tank...

From the large storage tank, the sap is pumped into a 6 × 15-foot evaporator in the sugarhouse. The evaporator, which holds 300 gallons of sap, boils the water out of the sap until it reaches approximately 219°F, a process that takes about 1½ hours, at which point the sap has become sirup. It has been caramelized by the heating and evaporating process, which gives it the amber color and its distinctive flavor. Generally speaking, the longer the sirup is cooked, and the later in the season it is gathered, the darker the sirup will be.

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Cooked in the evaporator ...
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Mike Funk checks...
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Steam can be seen...

Once the evaporation process is complete, the sirup is filtered again and placed in holding barrels until it can be bottled. Sirup is taken from these holding barrels, heated once again, filtered, and bottled hot. Then it is ready to be sold and enjoyed!

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Sean Funk fills a...
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A pint bottle is filled...
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The salesroom with...
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Assists customers in...
   

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