When I first thought about tapping a few maple trees to make syrup for the kids, I wanted to do it cheap. I wasn’t sure if the kids would enjoy it. And I wasn’t even sure I could handle the daily chore of hauling and boiling the sap. I ordered ten 5/16th-inch taps with ten 2-foot tubes from Amazon for a reasonable $15. But the buckets were a little too expensive for my experiment. Instead, I improvised and used milk jugs. In a house with three young kids, milk jugs are always being emptied. In a few weeks, I was able to save up 20 of them and I was off to the races.
I sterilized the jugs with a bleach solution. A rope and crude wire hook offered a cheap, simple way to hang the jug at the end of the tube below the tap. Once I installed my taps and jugs, I started to realize this simple method for collecting sap offered a bunch of advantages when it came to getting the kids involved and making small amounts of syrup.
First, the jugs are clear, so my kids could see how much sap was collecting in each one from a distance. They often ran ahead, excitedly reporting back about which jugs were full. With metal buckets, it is difficult to keep them at a height that is accessible to kids while following tapping guidelines.
My eight and five-year-olds can both carry a full gallon. This gives them a chance to put their energy into our project by hauling the jugs from the tree to the cart. And fetching empty jugs and caps gives them even more involvement. Putting the caps on the full jugs means no spills when the kids drop them. I’ve watched more than one full jug slide and bounce down the hill to be retrieved later, unharmed. Try doing that with a traditional sap bucket!
Once I got the full jugs back to the house, they were easily stored in a cool shady spot, or in a snow bank on a warm day. This is where having two sets of jugs came in handy, one set for collecting and one for storage. This minimized spoilage since I often had to wait a few days to collect enough sap to make it worth starting a boil. The jugs also gave me a simple way to know when to take my boiled sap from the turkey fryer to the stove-top for finishing. I assumed it took 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. When I boiled down 10 one-gallon milk jugs to two quarts of concentrated sap I knew I was getting close to a quart of finished syrup. I notched my stainless steel spoon so I could see when I had two quarts left so I wouldn’t over-boil, ruining the pot by burning my syrup. A candy thermometer and three-quart pot on the stovetop finished the job in short order.
The best thing was that I didn’t have to make space to store my jugs at the end of the season. I recycled them and started saving more jugs a month before maple season the following year. All told, I’d say old milk jugs are a great way to get started with backyard maple syrup. They give the kids a chance to get involved and they pair well with the turkey fryer method for making small amounts of syrup.