Saturday, March 3, 2012

It's Maple Syrup Time--In Tennessee???

Vermont, yes. Maine, yes. But, Tennessee?
It began a year ago. Last February, while biking through our neighboring community of Green Cove, Virginia, I noticed a grove of trees fitted with plastic tubes and white buckets. What the heck?? Then it dawned on me. Every year the Mt. Rogers fire department has a maple sugaring event—these must be some of the trees they tap. I’d never attended the event or seen a maple sugaring operation before and was instantly fascinated. But, maple sugaring in Virginia or Tennessee—who’d have ever thunk it??
Some research reinforced the feasiblity of producing maple syrup in this region—provided you have maple trees and a relatively small amount of equipment. Given how relatively simple a "backyard sugaring operation" seemed, I was surprised when an agricultural agent said he only knew of a couple people in the area who made maple syrup. When I asked why, he simply replied, “It’s too much work.” That answer always affects me in a primal way; it's probably related to why dogs chase cars. And with that, I had to try.

Step 1: Feasibility
Since my feet are still recovering from injuries, we surveyed only the most accessible trees on our land. Although the sugar maples of New England are more productive, you can use any species of maple for sugaring. We found 40 to 50 sugar, black, and red maples of adequate size. Last fall we marked them  when the leaves were still on for easy identification. They range in size from a minimum of 12 inches in diameter to a couple of beauties that approach three feet. This is more than adequate for a test run. We decided to do our maple syrup trial run by tapping just 25 of the most easily accessed trees.

Step 2: Sap Collection Supplies

Although commercial sugarers utilize elaborate systems, a backyard hobbyist can begin with surprisingly few essentials. Our sugaring adventure began with:
  • 25 7/16” spiles (plastic taps that are inserted into the tree)
  • cordless drill for boring the holes
  • 40 feet of plastic tubing
  • collection jugs; we used cleaned and recycled plastic milk jugs
  • rope to secure the milk jugs to the trees
  • a 4-wheeler to get from tree to tree (optional) J

Step 3: Tapping the Trees

Knowing when to tap the tree is one of the keys to success. Given our unusually warm February, we weren’t sure when the best time would be, so we employed a proven tactic—we spied. When I noticed the taps in at Green Cove, we tapped the following day—February 25.
About three feet above the ground, drill a 7/16” diameter hole about 2 inches deep into the tree, angling it slightly upwards to facilitate sap drainage. It's recommended to drill the hole on the warmer south side of the tree.


Tap in the spile with a wooden mallet until secure.

Hang a collection jug below the tap (the jug or 5 gallon bucket may sit on the ground, but we didn’t want any “dog interference” flavor).

Cut a length of tube and fit it from the spile into the pre-drilled lid and attach to the container. 

Repeat the process on all of your trees, and wait for the sap to flow. Ideal weather for maximum sap collection is chilly nights (below freezing) and warm days (above 40). 

Step 4: Collecting the Maple Sap

It didn’t take long for the sap to start flowing. We checked our trees the next day and we were already in business. The trees in the cooler shade produced sap less than an inch deep whereas the collection jug on one maple in the direct sun was almost full. On the second day we gathered the sap in five gallon buckets for an initial harvest of 14 gallons. Thus far, this is so easy that even I can do it.

Step 5: Boiling the Sap Down to Syrup

This being our first year and a bit of an experiment, we used a simple firepit made from stones, fire brick, and steel bars for the grate. Although this method proved to be adequate for our fledgling run, a more permanent evaporator would increase production and efficiency and may be in our plans for next year.  Sap to syrup ratios are approximately 40 to 1. And yes, that means to make 1 gallon of maple syrup, you need at least 40 gallons of sap. This explains two things--the high cost of pure maple syrup and why we spent the next 12 hours boiling down 14 gallons of sap. With that much sticky moisture being released into the air, this also explains why the evaporation process is typically done outside or in a well-ventilated or open-sided structure. Horror stories of well-meaning but misguided guys boiling down maple sap in their wive's kitchens abound.

For the best success, start early, have plenty of seasoned firewood, and possess the proverbial patience of Job. While the fire is building, you may want to preheat the first pan of sap on the kitchen stove to save some time. You will probably want to filter the sap through several layers of cheesecloth before you begin processing. Once your fire is hot, fill your evaporating pans about three-quarters to the top with sap and bring to a rolling boil. An enamel stockpot and roaster worked well for our trial run, but a more traditional stainless steel evaporating pan two feet wide, several feet long, and about eight inches deep would be much preferred. Nevertheless, even with our "field-improvised" outfit, it was easy to watch the level of the sap fall during the boil.

  As water evaporates and levels drop, keep ladling new sap into the pots to keep them about three-quarters full while maintaining a rolling boil. You will also need to skim off any foam or debris that gathers on the surface. As the sap boils down, you will begin to see it take on a beautiful amber hue. After umpteen hours of tending a fire, to say that this is highly motivational is an understatement. In future "cook-offs" I will probably bring a good book to pass the time, but on this maiden voyage I put to death the age-old myth that "A watched pot never boils." I'm a little embarrassed to confess that I spent the next 12 hours highly entertained watching pots boil. Some people are easily amused.

A bit of math provides an idea of when to stop cooking outside and bring your liquid gold indoors for the "finishing." Using the ballpark figure of 10 gallons of sap to produce one quart of syrup, you would probably want to transition inside when you have about a gallon left (do not let the level in the evaporating pan ever get below 1 1/2 or 2 inches as it can easily scorch). In our case, nightfall inspired us to bring the operation inside a little prematurely.
We double filtered the remaining 1 1/2 gallons before bringing it inside, using several layers of cheesecloth, to remove ash, sugar sand, and any uninvited debris.

Technicalities for the finishing can get quite involved (see links below) but here is the Maple Syrup for Dummies version: Determine the boiling point of water at your elevation and add 7 degrees. As your syrup is boiling, when it reaches that temperature, it is considered "finished."
A hydrometer is recommended for verifying the sugar content, but this technique will get you very close to the desired 66 to 67.5% sugar content.

 At our elevation of approximately 3,330 feet, water boils at around 209 degrees F. When our syrup reached 216 degrees, about 13 hours after we began, we stuck a spoon in it and called it done.

After a few sample tastes, we bottled our syrup--all 36 ounces of it. In spite of such a small return, it was an interesting and satisfying effort. I have never tasted a more exquisite syrup in my life. We already have enough sap for our next run.

Meditational Conclusion:
So, was it “too much work”? By contemporary standards, I suppose that it was. And if you live by contemporary standards, maybe Aunt Jemima’s utility pole syrup rests comfortably on your pantry shelf. That's fine and more power to you. But, even dating back to the Bible, you find a similar notion—that out of the abundant harvest comes a winnowed selection; out of the masses come a few. Over and over again in the scriptures, there is always the picture of a chosen remnant. A picture of how out of all the people in the world, with so many lost in the ADHD hustle and mind-numbing bustle, there is really just a small remnant of individuals who set their hearts and minds to truly seek God. It would be easy to ask God the same question. While watching the sap boiling I couldn’t help but ponder His answer. I will answer in similar fashion: Yes, it is a lot of work. But, the feast that follows makes it worth it.

A more involved treatment on how to make maple syrup can be found at the Ohio State University website and at the University of Maine website.


  1. This is really interesting! Great blog!

  2. I thought it would be fun to try this with the kids for some outdoor fun.
    I started this year with 10 taps a friend gave me and we boiled down 3 gallons in a pot on an open fire much like you did. I am thinking about trying an enamel coated roaster next time to speed up the process but I'm worried that the enamel might not do well on an open fire. Did you have any problems with the enamel roaster you were using?
    Any input on this would be appreciated before I make my purchase.
    Thanks and I enjoyed reading about your adventures in (mapeling) as my son calls it

    1. Jon, thank you for your kind comments. The enamelware we used worked very well. The biggest headache (not too surprisingly) is definitely the smoke/soot outer cleanup. For a backyard maple syrup adventure, an enamelware roaster or canner is hard to beat.

  3. Hi Barry,
    Great blog insightful and funny, I'm about to start a timber frame project and would be keen on any advice you could give is there any way I could contact you
    RK (form Australia)

    1. Hi RK in Australia
      Sorry for my delay in responding—I forgot to update my notification settings.
      Thank you for your kind comments! I would be glad to answer any questions you have. There is now a “Contact Me” option in my Blogger Profile page. Feel free to use it!
      I am hoping to begin another frame shortly and may photo-document it for a more thorough series of blogs on timber framing.
      Best wishes on your endeavor.

  4. This was just what I needed to read; we have everything we need to tap and I couldn't find any information regarding my enamelwear canning pot being food safe. I knew it was safe for canning, of course, but was unsure of actually boiling food in it. Also, I have to agree with taking the time to slow down and do the work as God made us to do.

    1. Thanks for the kind comment, Katie. I'm glad it was helpful. Best wishes on your trial run!

    2. We drilled holes yesterday, and I excitedly check for sap today. Not a drop. However, with the windchill in MN, it's only 31 degrees. I just need to have patience, I suppose :)

    3. It's nearing the end of the season, but as long as its below freezing at night and above freezing during the day you should get some sap. Most people stop collecting shortly after the trees bud out. Good luck to you!