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Sappy days

Enthusiast makes backyard batches of maple syrup
Story and photos by Glen Liford 1/26/2017


Hugh produces just enough syrup for his own personal use. Commercial operations would need to meet state regulations, including inspections by the health department to ensure facilities and methods were state-approved. It takes roughly 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup.
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Who can resist a tall stack of fluffy, golden pancakes drenched in sticky, sweet, maple syrup? It’s one of those treats usually reserved for a weekend breakfast when there’s plenty of time to savor the experience.

Most folks never give a thought to the origins of the golden syrup. But if they do, visions of some rustic New England farm that might have been described in a poem by Robert Frost will leap to mind: a snowladen landscape that features tall maples from which wooden buckets hang from the taps.

The world’s maple syrup production comes exclusively from the United States and Canada. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the U.S. produced 3,167,000 gallons of the flavorful treat in 2014. The top five producing states were Vermont, New York, Maine, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. But maple syrup can be produced on a smaller scale anywhere maple trees are grown and the temperatures fluctuate appropriately.

The Tipton Haynes Historical Site near Johnson City has been hosting Maple Syrup Days annually since 2002. Visitors to the historic farm can see how their ancestors might have made maple syrup, using authentic methods to tap maples trees on the property, collect sap, cook it down, and filter it to a useable consistency.

This year’s Maple Syrup Demonstration will be Saturday, Feb. 18, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Tipton Haynes Historic Site located at 2620 South Roan in Johnson City.

The Tipton Haynes staff will host a delicious pancake breakfast during the morning, and visitors can stroll the grounds and chat with the artisans who are making the syrup.

“We’ll be happy to answer questions and offer advice in case anyone wants to consider trying their hand at making syrup on their own,” says Hugh Thompson.

Hugh has helped with the Tipton Haynes demo since the second year it was staged. The 86-year-old maple syrup enthusiast lives in a subdivision just over the ridge from the historic farm. He makes his own syrup from sap collected from a few trees in his yard and those growing on a vacant lot just a short distance down the street. He started his project with only three silver maples in his yard (two have since died) and another eight sugar maples on the nearby lot.

While the demonstration at Tipton Haynes shows how the process might have looked in the late 1700s during the farm’s heyday, Hugh prefers to rely on modern conveniences to make the process a bit easier. He drills the taps with a cordless power drill and a 5/16-inch bit instead of a vintage, T-shaped hand auger. The tap is carefully positioned at a slightly upward angle to a depth of approximately 11/2 inches. He then drives a short piece of modern PVC pipe, threaded on one end, into the hole. Rubber tubing affixed to the pipe allows sap to drain into a jug or other container at the base of the tree.

“I like my way better,” says Hugh, who retired after a long and successful career as a chemist at Eastman Chemical Company in nearby Kingsport.

Hugh begins tapping his trees in late December or early January, and depending on temperatures, may continue through February into early March. He says the trees are ready to tap when the buds begin to “swell.” Sap begins to flow when daytime temperatures reach the lower 40s or 50s, he says, and then sink to below freezing at night. Trees should be at least 10 inches in diameter before they are tapped, adding that the taps do no longterm harm to the trees.

“The weather acts as sort of a pump as the sap gets to running through the trees,” he explains.

As temperatures rise, pressure builds within the tree and forces the sap out the tap. When temperatures fall, suction created within the tree draws moisture in through the roots to serve as fuel to replenish the sap.

A “good flowing tree” may yield as much as two gallons a day, Hugh says, but production varies from tree to tree. Temperatures, weather conditions, soil type, tree genetics, the tree’s crown size, and how the maple is situated in the sun all influence production.

Hugh collects sap in one gallon wine jugs, and he refrigerates them until he has enough to begin processing.

Sap to make syrup can be obtained from silver maple, black maple, and sugar maple trees. And Hugh has even tapped sycamore, black walnut, and beech trees. Connoisseurs say syrup made from sycamore sap has a hint of butterscotch flavor, while sap from a black walnut has a distinctive walnut tang and boasts a much stronger flavor than maple syrup.

“The sugar content of the different tree saps varies,” Hugh explains. “It takes about 19 gallons of sap from maple trees to make one gallon of syrup. The walnut syrup takes even more because the sap has lower sugar content.

Hugh boils the sap in five-gallon stainless steel pots over camp stoves on the deck at the back of his home. He does the final boil down in his kitchen where he can better control the heat. To achieve the highest quality, the sap is heated to 180 degrees and sugar content is tested with a refractometer to ensure it measures 66 percent sugar on the Brixx scale. Before bottling, the syrup is passed through a food grade filter to remove impurities and grit known as maple sand (calcium malate).

“It crystallizes if you boil it too long,” he says. “Boil it too little, and it will be watery.”

“The sap in its raw form doesn’t taste that sweet,” he adds. “It’s the cooking and evaporation process that provides the distinctive maple syrup flavor and color.”

Hugh makes some of the delicious syrup every year, but as with any agricultural crop, yield is better some years than others.

“One year, I made 28 quarts of the stuff,” he says. “I gave some of it away, but I usually have some extra here.”

Commercial operations grade syrup according to color and sugar content. The darker grades boast more intense flavor. But the sugar content is determined by the sap, which has different sugar content during different times in the season.

Hugh says folks who want to try their own hand at making maple syrup can do so with a small investment and a little effort. Resources are available on the internet that will give a general overview of the process. Cornell University has informative publications available online, including “Maple Syrup Production for the Beginner at

For home use, Hugh recommends the following equipment:

• A cordless drill with a 7/16-inch bit for boring the tap holes.

• Short lengths (approximately 3 inches) of 3/8-inch PVC pipe to use as spiles.

• Containers to capture and store sap until it is ready to be processed. Hugh prefers recycled, glass, one-gallon wine jugs, but any one-to-two-gallon container will suffice.

• Plastic tubing to connect the spiles to the containers.

• A refractometer to determine sugar content of the processed syrup.

• A thermometer such as a kitchen or candy thermometer that is easily readable above 200 degrees.

• Stainless steel pots or pans in which to cook the sap.

• Food quality filters.

• Canning jars or bottles for storing the final product.

While most of these items are readily available in any home supply store, equipment specifically designed for the hobbyist is available at the website The site proclaims itself as “the #1 supplier of maple sugaring supplies for the hobbyist.”

Hugh says an initial investment of $200 or so “would probably get someone started.”

“If someone wants some help getting started, they should just contact me,” he says. “I like people who like things I like.”

For more information about this year’s Maple Syrup Day or the site, call (423) 926-3631. Hugh plans on attending the event, or you can contact him directly at 423-928-0472.

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