It’s Time to Boil Down Sap Into Syrup at Colvin Run Mill

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.

maple syrup boil down at Colvin Run MillSyrup 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.


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About Fairfax County Park Authority

About Fairfax County Park Authority HISTORY: On December 6, 1950, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors created the Fairfax County Park Authority. The Park Authority was authorized to make decisions concerning land acquisition, park development and operations in Fairfax County, Virginia. To date, 13 park bond referenda have been approved between 1959 and 2016. Today, the Park Authority has 427 parks on more than 23,000 acres of land. We offer 325 miles of trails, our most popular amenity. FACILITIES: The Park system is the primary public mechanism in Fairfax County for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land and resources, areas of historic significance and the provision of recreational facilities and services including: • Nine indoor RECenters with swimming pools, fitness rooms, gyms and class spaces. Cub Run features an indoor water park and on-site naturalist • Eight golf courses from par-3 to championship level, four driving ranges including the new state-of-the-art heated, covered range at Burke Lake Golf Center • Five nature and visitor centers. Also nine Off-Leash Dog Activity areas • Three lakefront parks including Lake Fairfax, Lake Accotink and Burke Lake, with campgrounds at Burke Lake and Lake Fairfax. The Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole at Lake Fairfax, Our Special Harbor Sprayground at Lee as well as an indoor water park at Cub Run RECenter • Clemyjontri Park, a fully accessible playground in Great Falls featuring two acres of family friendly fun and a carousel, as well as Chessie’s Big Backyard and a carousel at the Family Recreation Area at Lee District Park • An ice skating rink at Mount Vernon RECenter and the Skate Park in Wakefield Park adjacent to Audrey Moore RECenter • Kidwell Farm, a working farm of the 1930s-era at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, now with historic carousel • Eight distinctive historic properties available for rent • A working grist mill at Colvin Run in Great Falls and a restored 18th century home at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly • A horticulture center at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale • Natural and cultural resources protected by the Natural Resource Management Plan and Cultural Resource Plans, plus an Invasive Management Area program that targets alien plants and utilizes volunteers in restoring native vegetation throughout our community • Picnic shelters, tennis courts, miniature golf courses, disc golf courses, off-leash dog parks, amphitheaters, a marina, kayaking/canoeing center • Provides 263 athletic fields, including 39 synthetic turf fields, and manages athletic field maintenance services at 417 school athletic fields. PARK AUTHORITY BOARD: A 12-member citizen board, appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sets policies and priorities for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Visit for Fairfax County Government's Comment Policy.

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