Story and photos by Renae Blum
The tree sap begins to flow. It looks — and almost tastes — like water. But, after being boiled for an hour, it reduces into what Dan Hejl calls “liquid gold” — syrup he collects himself.
It’s a tradition Hejl looks forward to every year. The Pleasant Dale, Nebraska, man collects sap from the same woods he hunts in, and gifts landowners with a jar of the highly prized black walnut syrup.
Black walnut syrup is similar to the maple kind, but with a rich nutty, butterscotch taste. Hejl’s favorite way to enjoy the syrup is spooned over vanilla ice cream.
“Most people don’t think of black walnut trees when they think of syrup, but in my opinion, they make the most delicious and uniquely flavored syrup you can imagine,” Hejl said.
Black walnut syrup is also produced commercially, but it’s expensive. And in Hejl’s opinion, it’s far more fun and rewarding to make it yourself. “The results are unsurpassed by anything you can buy in the store,” he said.
Collecting the Sap
You can collect sap from a variety of trees, the process of which is generally the same, but you’ll need a few things to get started:
• 10-40 spiles, 5/16” size
• A cordless drill and bit
• Clean 5-gallon buckets with lids
• A fine-screen strainer
• Clean plastic milk jugs, with 5/8” hole drilled near the top
• A large stainless steel stock pot
• A candy thermometer
• An outdoor turkey fryer
• Clean canning jars
Conditions are right for tapping in late winter and early spring, when daytime temperatures are in the high 30s to 50s, and nighttime temperatures drop below freezing. This fluctuation in temperature causes sap to flow.
Though tapping trees at Nebraska state park areas isn’t permitted, Hejl thinks landowners would be open to allowing it on their property. “Find a private landowner and just ask permission,” he said.
Trees should be a minimum of 10-12 inches in diameter to accommodate a single tap; trees over 25 inches in diameter can handle two or three taps at a time.
Using a 5/16″ drill bit, drill a hole into the tree at a slight upward angle, about 3 feet up from the ground. The hole should be 2 to 2½ inches deep for standard-size spiles. Hejl wraps masking tape 2¼ inches from the tip of his drill bit for easy reference. He recommends drilling on the south side of the tree where sap will flow better because it warms under the sun.
Lightly hammer a spile into this hole until it fits snugly. Sap should start dripping almost immediately. Place a milk jug onto the spile, and then move on to the next tree.
Hejl collects sap daily, removing the jug and pouring the sap through a fine mesh strainer into a clean 5-gallon bucket. This removes any bark or bugs that may have gotten into it. Then replace the jug.
“When I get home, I put the bucket of sap into the fridge,” Hejl said. “Treat the sap as if it was milk.”
Sap will last about 10 days in the fridge, or you can freeze it until you have time — and enough — to make syrup.
You can tap trees until buds appear on them and leaves are on the verge of forming. This is the end of the season, when you should remove your spiles. According to tree experts, the tree will then heal itself naturally over time from the drilling. If you tap the same tree again next year, drill about 6 inches away from previous holes.
Making the Syrup
It takes 10 to 15 gallons of sap to make 1 quart of syrup and 40 to 62 gallons to produce 1 gallon. But once you have enough, the process is simple.
Pour the sap into a stainless-steel pot and boil it until the excess water is gone and just sugary syrup remains. Keep in mind, you can add sap throughout the boil-down phase.
The process takes time and produces a lot of humidity. If you are working with less than 5 gallons of sap, you can use your stovetop; otherwise, complete this step outdoors in a propane turkey fryer or two. If you are running two pots at a time outdoors, Hejl estimates it will take about one hour for each gallon of sap to boil off.
Hejl recommends finishing the boil-down process on your kitchen stove so you can closely monitor temperature and the final transition from sap to syrup — the tricky part.
Sap turns to syrup when it reaches 7½ degrees over the boiling point of water, a number that varies slightly depending on where you live. Determine at what temperature water boils at your location, then add 7½ degrees to find the temperature at which your sap will become syrup.
“This is critical, and it happens very quickly once it gets close to that temperature, so monitor it very closely,” Hejl said.
Once you’ve created the syrup, remove the pot from the stove and allow it to cool slightly. Then, pour the syrup through cheesecloth to remove any impurities. Hejl typically runs it through clean cheesecloth several times.
The final step is pouring the syrup into jars with lids. Kept in the fridge, the syrup will last for at least a year.
A Fun Pastime
Tapping trees for syrup isn’t a well-known hobby, at least in Nebraska. That could be because people either don’t know about it, Hejl said, or find the process intimidating. However, once you understand the steps, it’s fairly simple, he said.
He recommends this hobby to anyone who enjoys the outdoors and is looking for something new to do.
“I just go out into nature and take what nature wants to give me,” Hejl said. “I can’t wait for spring to do it again.” ■