Mistletoe State Park manager Bill Tinley bores a hole in a red maple tree.
Photo by Barry Paschal
From the side of a tree to a stack of pancakes, Bill Tinley has learned to tap a source of natural sweetness.
He shared his self-taught expertise in transforming maple sap into maple syrup at Makin' Maple, a seminar Jan. 3 at Mistletoe State Park in Winfield, where Tinley is park manager.
"To make maple syrup, you've got to have maple sap," Tinley said. "the things you need to tap trees are simple - real simple."
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, most commercial maple syrup production is in 10 Northern states, which produce a total of more than a million gallons of syrup a year.
Those states, Tinley said, tap sugar maples - but few of those sap-happy trees grow in Southern states. Instead, Tinley told nearly 50 seminar participants, he's had success in extracting sap from native red maples. Through nearly 20 years of trial and error, he's learned how to take the product from tree to table.
"Any maple tree makes sap," Tinley said. The problem for amateurs, however, can be in identifying red maples for tapping - especially in winter, when the trees have shed their leaves.
It's best to mark potential trees in summer, when red maples are easily identified by their three-lobed, serrated leaves with red stems, Tinley said.
If that's not possible, trees without leaves often can be identified by the leaves lying on the ground. "The majority of leaves on the ground under that tree, believe it or not, came from that tree," Tinley said, laughing.
After he identifies a red maple, Tinley said, he uses an old-fashioned hand drill to bore a hole in the tree. He then taps a hollowed-out wooden dowel into the hole and pushes the other end of that simple spigot through a hole in a milk jug that he straps to the tree trunk.
"I've seen a good tree put out a gallon of sap in one day," Tinley said.
Mistletoe State Park Manager Bill Tinley demonstrates his method for attaching a jug to a red maple tree to catch sap after the tree has been tapped.
Photo by Barry Paschal
Georgia's tapping season runs from early January until roughly the middle of February, he said, when nighttime temperatures are below freezing, and days warm to the low 40s.
After the sap is collected, Tinley said, 10 gallons boil down to about a quart of syrup. According to the Web site of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, maple sap is just 2 percent sugar; the rest is water.
Participants in Tinley's seminar will be invited back in a few weeks to see the last steps of the syrup-making process as the liquid is cooked, but he told his audience that the task isn't too complicated to finish on their own.
"There are all kinds of scientific ways you can do it," Tinley said, "but hey, man, if you don't know what syrup looks like, you ought not to be doing this. Just boil it 'til it looks like syrup."
Steps to making maple syrup:
1. Identify red maple trees, taking care not to confuse them with sweetgum or sycamore trees, which have similar leaf shapes.
2. Using a 7/16 inch wood-boring bit, drill a hole 2 inches into the tree about three feet from the ground.
3. Lightly tap a spigot into the hole. Tinley makes his spigots from sections of 5/8 inch wooden dowels, hollowed out with a 1/4 inch drill bit. He then tapers one end with a sander.
4. Punch a hole in the side of a clean, capped gallon milk jug and push it onto the spigot. Use elastic cargo cords to hold the jug tightly to the tree.
5. Check the jugs daily and clean out the hole in the tree if sap stops flowing. After the jug is full, empty it into a larger container and refrigerate until time to cook.
6. After enough sap is collected - it takes about 10 gallons to make one quart of syrup - boil it down in a large pot, adding sap as the liquid boils until all of it has been reduced. Tinley said to cook it "until it looks like syrup." Measured with a candy thermometer, the syrup should reach 220 degrees.
7. The finished syrup should be filtered through felt or flannel and can be stored in canning jars. Tinley suggests emptying a maple syrup container and reusing it.
Sources: Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, Bill Tinley, U.S. Department of Agriculture
For more information, go to www.massmaple.org, or www.maplesyrup.com. For the follow-up "Makin' Maple" session, call Bill Tinley at 541-0321.
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