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The Franklin News-Post
P. O. Box 250
310 Main Street, SW
Rocky Mount, Virginia 24151
Fax: 540-483-8013

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A taste of Vermont in Franklin County
Martins produce pure maple syrup
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Photo by Jeanne Martin Robert Martin (center) oversees the process of making maple syrup on his property in Franklin County near the Blue Ridge Parkway. Two large vats are used to cook down the sap, gathered from 30 to 35 red maples.
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Friday, April 5, 2013

By CHARLES BOOTHE - Staff Writer

Most people probably think of Vermont when pure maple syrup is mentioned.

But a Franklin County couple is producing some here, literally in their own back yard.

Robert and Jeanne Martin live right on the edge of the county, near the Blue Ridge Parkway, and plenty of maple trees are on their property.

About three years ago, they decided to take advantage of the trees and learn how to harvest and produce the popular syrup. A friend, Dug Minix of Franklin County, passed on the rudiments of the process and actually processed the first batch of sap.

Jeanne Martin said they learned quickly that it is quite a process.

"We have about 30 to 35 trees tapped," she said. "They are red maples not sugar maples, but sugar maples are the best as the sap to syrup ration is better."

Each tree has one or two taps, which are small holes drilled just inside the bark.

"There is an outer bark and an inner bark, then a layer between the bark and the wood of the tree," she said, which is where the hole ends and the sap runs. "It doesn't hurt the tree at all. It will heal itself."

Flexible tubing is inserted into the taps, which runs into a 5-gallon bucket.

"We probably have about 30 5-gallon buckets," she said.

Many buckets are needed because a "run" will require from 50 to 70 gallons of sap.

"The classic proportion for red maple trees is around 60 gallons, which will garner you about a gallon of syrup," (40 to 1 for sugar maples) she said, adding that the sap is mostly water. "It looks like water and doesn't even taste sweet."

Although 60 gallons may seem like a lot, the buckets can fill relatively quickly.

"We have had trees fill a 5-gallon bucket of sap in one day," she said. "That is incredible." 

When full, the buckets are emptied into large vats.

The Martins have two such vats, one an old industrial size stainless steel sink and the other a traditional 60-gallon copper pot.

All of this takes place outside, of course, and the Martins heat the vats with wood boiling the sap most of the day to evaporate the water to concentrate the sugars.

The final boil is done on the stove until the sap has reached 7 degrees above the boiling temperature -- which is 208 degrees at 3,000 feet above sea level, where their property is.

"We use wood during evaporation and the syrup actually picks up a little of the flavoring," she said, "but it's 100 percent natural maple syrup."

Considering how long the sap must boil, it's easy to understand how some of that wood-smoked flavor can blend into the syrup.

It's usually at least five hours before it cooks down enough for the next step.

"When you boil it down, what's' left is the sap sugar, which is what constitutes maple syrup," she said. "When the water content is reduced to the point there is little water left, it gets that caramel color and thickens."

When that happens, the process is still not complete.

The liquid is then taken inside and put on a stove to cook some more, maybe a couple of hours or so.

"You have to get rid of most of the water," Martin said. "If there is too much water it will mold. But if it is cooked too much you get basically candy crystals."

"It has a look to it (when it's ready to take out)," she said. "It's furiously boiling, then all of a sudden, it will foam up and then it has a frothy look. People who make candy will know what this means."

After this second cooking, which may end up producing two to four quarts, depending on how much sap was cooked initially, it's easy sailing.

"You let it cool down to 190 degrees and then pour it into canning jars," she said. "Turn the canning jars upside down and it cans itself. It (the lid) will pop (indicating an airtight seal)."

Martin said it's a day-long process, and when it is done is entirely dependent on the weather.

"When the temperatures gets below freezing at night, then warms up above freezing during the day, it's the tree's way of knowing it's time to energize and get the sap flowing," she said.

Of course, these temperature swings must occur for at least several days in a row, usually during mid- to late winter, for the tree to get the message, and that may or may not happen during the course of a winter.

Martin said this past winter was unusual because of the number of days, and different times, the freezing nights and warmer days occurred.

"We did a run three times this year (since January) and that is fairly unusual," she said.

And the sap can start flowing at any time during one of these weather cycles.

"You have to have all of your supplies and everything ready to go beforehand," she said. "It's a full day event, a lot of work," she said. "We start (the boiling outside) at 9 or 10 in the morning and have it on the kitchen stove around 3 to 5 p.m."

The Martins also make syrup from Birch trees which produce sap in the late spring and tastes quite different from maple syrup.

The birch trees actually require 100 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup, however the sap runs much faster, more constantly and does not depend on freeze and thaw temperatures like the maples, Martin said.

Regardless of what is brewing, though, it's a fun day, even if it's cold, she said, with a great reward in the end.

"It's nature at its best," Martin said of the syrup.

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