Step one: Determine if your trees are maples (or otherwise tappable). It can be hard to tell during the winter, but the branching patterns can help you determine what type of trees you have. Oak trees, which are common here in New Jersey, have an alternating branching pattern, while maple trees have an opposite branching pattern (see image, below). You can also tap walnut and birch trees, but they have a lower sugar content, so you'll need more sap to get syrup, but it will be equally tasty. Obviously, if you're allergic to walnut, avoid tapping walnut trees.
Step two: Order equipment. You'll basically only need a few things. Your taps, or spiles, are what go into the tree. You'll need one tap for each tree over 12" in diameter, and 2 taps can be put into trees over 18". Don't tap anything smaller than 12". There are different types of spiles, metal and plastic, but they all work similarly. Below is a photo of the ones we ordered. Depending on the spiles you order, you may also need tubing to direct the flow into your container. Our spiles came with 2' lengths of tubing attached, as pictured.
You'll also need buckets to collect the sap. You can use 1 gallon milk jugs or water bottles, but you'll need to collect the sap frequently. We did this last year, and, sadly, probably lost a ton of sap to spillage without even realizing it. We learned from our mistake, and this year are using 5 gallon pails with a hole drilled in the lid. In just a day or two, we found that we already had 20 gallons of sap in 4 full buckets, so if you keep up with it, you can get quite a bit!
Step four: Collect your sap frequently, and store it below 38 degrees. If you have to leave it outside, cover it and try to keep it in a snow bank, or pile snow around it. Sap should be used within a week.
Step five: Freeze your sap. We skipped this step last year, thinking it'd be a waste of time, and of course learned the hard way that it's actually a time saver. This step separates much of the water out of your sap, and speeds up the boiling time. We're definitely doing it this year; 10 gallons are already in the chest freezer.
Step six: Clear your day. Pour your sap in a large pot. (This is best done outside, on a large propane burner, or your house will become a rainforest, complete with dripping ceilings. For real. Don't ask me how I know this.) Bring the sap to a rolling boil and watch it throughout the day, adding more sap as necessary to keep the pot 2/3 full. Once it all boils down to a smaller amount, you can transfer the sap to a smaller pot and finish the boil indoors. The sap is officially syrup when it reaches 219 degrees. It takes up to 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, so seriously... Clear your day and start early.
A note - that was how we did it last year. This year, we've bought an evaporator pan. We'll be building a trough out of cinderblocks and placing two propane burners in it, with the pan over them. This allows for a shallower, longer, wider surface and two burners rather than one, and is reputed to be much faster. I'll be posting once we get to boiling, which will be Friday or Saturday, so watch this blog for more photos and updates!
Step seven: Filter your syrup through a few layers of cheesecloth, and pour into pre-warmed canning jars (if you put 219 degree syrup into cold jars, they can crack, so make sure you warm them in a pot of hot water beforehand. Wipe the rims of your jars, put the lids on, and screw the bands finger tight. As they cool, the lids should pop in, and you can store your syrup at room temperature for a year or more.