Syruping is a family affair for the Breiningers, of Durham.
Tom and his wife, Mary Ann, their sons, Kyle, Eric, and Nathan, and Tom’s brother, Will, have been making maple syrup for 27 years.
Every year it’s a roll of the dice. Mother Nature decides just how often they will be sitting down to pancakes swimming in the sweet stuff.
“We usually start on Valentine Day weekend,” Tom said, “and we’re done by April 1. The best temperatures for this are 20 degrees at night and 50 degrees during the day. That gets the sap running. We can get sap if it’s a couple of degrees below freezing at night and a couple of degrees above freezing during the day, but we won’t get as much. This hasn’t been a good year because it’s stayed cold. It’s the variation in the temperatures that makes the sap run.”
Tom learned how to make maple syrup by reading books. “I wanted to do this because I can get something out of a minimal amount of work,” he said. “That’s why I liked raising bees. The bees did all the work, and I got a lot of honey.”
They tap seven trees every year-four on Tom and Mary Ann’s property and three on the neighbor’s. “You want trees with a lot of fine branches on the top,” Tom said. “The sap runs up into those little branches, and when it comes down, it goes into a vein, which is what you tap. The vein is above the root or below a big branch.” A hole is drilled into the tree, than a spile (a spout which draws off the sap) is banged into the hole. A hose on the end of the spile deposits the sap into a garbage can, which is then dumped into buckets and ferried over to Will’s house. There the sap is boiled in a stainless steel bucket that sits on cinder blocks, with a fire underneath. It takes 40 or 50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, which is all the family is expecting for this season.
At 219 degrees the sap becomes syrup. At 220 or 221 degrees, it will be maple candy.
“You can use a thermometer for this,” Tom said, “but we haven’t used one in years. When it starts bubbling and foaming, we take it into the house and finish the last few minutes on the stove. That way we can control the temperature. Then we put it in jars and divide it amongst the family and the neighbor whose trees we tap.”
And it’s not just these folks who have enjoyed this family tradition. When the couple’s sons were children and in the Cub Scouts, the troops would come over and help put the spiles in the trees. “They would drink the sap as it flowed out of the trees,” Tom said.
“It’s a lot of work and I give him a lot of credit,” Mary Ann said. “I don’t do much. Tom says my job is to eat it.”
“The hardest part,” Tom said, “is dedicating our weekends for a month to boiling. You can’t make any other plans. The best part? Having Durham maple syrup instead of Vermont maple syrup.”