It’s called a spile. You probably don’t have one lying around the house unless, perhaps, you grew up in Vermont. You’ll see them, though, at the Colvin Run Mill Maple Syrup Boil Down.
A spile is the draining tube that is drilled into maple trees in the first step that starts the long, slow late winter/early spring process of making the maple syrup that puts the zing in morning pancakes. This is not the artificially flavored stuff. This is the real thing.
Tapping maple trees is the process of getting the sap out of a tree and, eventually, onto a waffle. It’s done in the late winter/early spring, when sap starts to flow as the trees prepare for spring growth. February, when daytime temperatures are above freezing but nighttime temperatures are not, is the usual time in Fairfax County. Weather conditions can affect the timing.
A small hole is drilled into a tree – not very far, just under the bark. Often the best place is below a large branch or above a large root. Three feet or so off the ground will do. The spile goes into the hole, and a food-grade bucket is hung below the spile. A lid goes over the bucket to keep out debris like dust and leaves. Sweet and simple. Tapping stops when buds start forming on the tree.
Sap, which is clear and looks like water, may start running immediately. Depending on the tree and how much sap is rising through it on a given day, there could be a slow drip or a flow heavy enough to fill the bucket in a day. The sap is then kept cool, but not frozen, until the boil down.
The sap can be tasted straight from the tree, but like most things in nature, that’s not a particularly good idea because it might contain bacteria you don’t want exploring your body. Boiling takes care of that. More boiling is needed to make syrup. A lot more.
Syrup is the goal of the maple tree tapping and the maple syrup boil down that takes place each year at Colvin Run Mill Historic Site. To turn that sap into maple syrup, the sap is filtered, perhaps through cheesecloth, and then has to have a lot of excess water removed. The boil-down ratio to remove that excess water for sugar maples in northern states is 40-to-1. It will take 10 gallons of sap to make a quart of syrup – 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. Colvin Run Miller Mason Maddox, your guide at the boil down, says Colvin Run’s rate is 60-to-1 – 15 gallons of sap per quart of syrup.
By the way, if you make syrup at home, don’t boil the sap indoors. At a 60-to-1 ratio, that’s a lot of steam rolling into your house. If you boil outdoors – follow laws and make fire safety the first priority. The syrup can be filtered again with a food-grade filter before being bottled.
Each spring, Colvin Run Mill taps trees and hosts a trio of boil downs where you can enjoy a crisp day outdoors, watch the steaming cauldron of sap turning into syrup, enjoy some snacks, mix with neighbors, and even taste pure maple syrup over cornbread while supplies last. No reservations are needed. The cost is $5 per person. The boil-downs are 12 noon to 2 p.m. on three upcoming Sundays – February 7 and 21 and March 6.
Colvin Run Mill Historic Site is located at 10017 Colvin Run Road in Great Falls, Va.