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Don and Nancy Hazel are pictured tapping maple trees.

Step aside Vermont. Back off Canada. Tennessee's maple syrup is the best. Of course, that is only my opinion, and I have to admit that I am slightly biased.

It all started about a year ago when my daughter, who lives in northern Ohio, told me that her neighbors were making maple syrup. The neighbors had moved to Ohio from Canada and had collected and made maple syrup up there. Canada, especially Quebec, and Vermont produce the most, and the best known, maple syrup.

Well, that got me interested, especially since I read that maple syrup can be made from red maple trees as well as sugar maples. That was important, because Tennessee is at the southern edge of the sugar maple range and they are not common around here. Red maples are everywhere.

When my daughter bought me ten maple sugar tubes and taps for Christmas, there was no turning back. So, a few weeks ago, I drilled a two-inch deep hole in 10 different red maple trees and began my Tennessee maple syrup adventure.

The big commercial operations up north connect long lengths of tubing from many trees to a central large tank. My tubes were only about two feet long and each connected to its own milk jug. With the help of my wife and friends we went from tree to tree and collected sap from the milk jugs each day. Sometimes a one gallon jug would be full in 24 hours, but mostly it was a pint or a quart per day per tree. The sap flows best when the nights are below freezing and the days are sunny and warm. When buds appear or when the nights no longer regularly dip below freezing, the season is over.

When the sap comes out of the tree, it has a barely noticeable taste and it is clear and as thin as water. To turn it into maple syrup, you have to boil it down. 40 gallons of maple sap makes about one gallon of maple syrup. That is a lot of boiling down.

Bigger operations use evaporators to boil down the maple sap, similar to the evaporators that you might have seen being used to make sorghum syrup in Muddy Pond in the fall. My small time operation used the burner from a propane turkey cooker and a 20-quart stock pot. Once it got boiling, the sap boiled off about a gallon per hour. One 20-pound tank of propane would boil down about ten gallons of sap into about one quart of maple syrup in about 10-12 hours. There is no stirring, only waiting.

Most of the boiling down needs to take place outside so your wife's hair doesn't go frizzy from all of the humidity indoors. As the sap gets close to being syrup, you should move the operation to a smaller pan on the stove top, so you can watch it very closely. The boiling down is done, and your sap is syrup, when the temperature of the sap is seven degrees above the boiling point of water. At our altitude, water boils at 208 degrees and therefore sap is syrup at 215 degrees.

Maple syrup is classified by color. Earlier in the season, lighter colored syrup is produced. As the days get warmer, the syrup gets darker. Lighter syrup has a delicate flavor, darker syrup has a richer or more robust flavor. I ended up with some of each.

All together, I boiled down nearly 20 gallons of sap and produced just over three pints of maple syrup. Someone asked me if I intended to sell any. I replied, "You couldn't afford it." When you consider the supplies, taps, tubes, containers, propane, turkey cooker, glass bottles and especially the labor, it is much more economical to buy your maple syrup at the grocery store. A 12-ounce bottle of pure maple syrup at the grocery store is about $7. Mine is not for sale at any price.

I grew up eating Log Cabin syrup on my pancakes. The last I looked, Log Cabin was only about two percent maple syrup, the rest is corn syrup plus lots of other stuff. I used to like it. But maple syrup is like high speed internet...get your wallet out, because once you try it you can never go back.

My maple syrup adventure was lots of fun. Plus, what other adventure can you eat when you are done?

I have nothing against Vermont or Canadian maple syrup...it is very good. But for me, my 100 percent homemade, pure, organic, natural, Tennessee maple syrup is the best.

Comments, questions or suggestions for future nature articles are welcome at don.hazel@gmail.com.

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