The art of making maple syrup

Local taps trees to make his own


It’s no secret that Vermont, Upstate New York, and Canada are world-renowned for producing maple syrup—the kind that should be generously drizzled over a stack of hotcakes on a lazy weekend morning. But equally as good, and perhaps even better, some might argue, is syrup that is tapped from maple trees that can be found across Long Island, even in the hamlet of Center Moriches.

So says Center Moriches resident Roger Davis, a retired technician from Brookhaven National Laboratory and amateur sugarmaker—the term used to describe someone who makes maple syrup—who’s been harvesting the sweet stuff from sap drawn from his backyard maples for the last 14 years. 

Making his own maple syrup was an idea that was sparked in Davis when he was just a boy. He fondly tells the story of eating breakfast at the kitchen table, drowning his pancakes in maple syrup, when his mother suddenly scolds him for using too much. She admonishes him, asking, “Do you know what goes into making that maple syrup?” That question remained in Davis’s head for decades, but it wasn’t until he received the book “Backyard Sugaring” many years later as a gift, that he began his foray into making maple syrup.

Cultivating syrup is an age-old practice, one that goes back to the indigenous peoples of Northeast America. Native tribes such as the Algonquians ingested syrup for energy and nutrition. They extracted sap by cutting V-like shapes into a maple tree, and then inserted a tubular piece of bark so that the sap could drain into an earthen vessel.

The process took place in early spring during the Sugar Moon, when there was a thaw in the cold temperatures. After being stored outside overnight, the sap was brought to large open fires, where it was boiled and converted into maple syrup. Centuries later, the process hasn’t changed all that much, except for improvements in equipment and technology that have made making maple syrup more efficient.

At Davis’s Union Avenue home, otherwise known as Davis Maple Farm, Davis uses the many Norway maples that dot his backyard as his sap source. He also uses trees from a neighbor’s yard, and in total, taps approximately 70 maple trees in a season. The Tide had the pleasure of visiting Davis’s sugar-making operation on an exceptionally chilly Saturday afternoon in early February.

A modest wooden structure serves as Davis’s sugaring headquarters, also known as a sugar shack, sugar shanty or sugar house. Upon entering, visitors are greeted with an overwhelmingly pleasant smell like cotton candy, as the tree sap is being transformed into maple syrup.

But before the syrup makes its way to the bottle and onto the plate, Davis must first tap the maple trees. Timing is everything, said Davis, and is dependent upon the weather. Maple trees produce sap all summer long, explained Davis, but when the sap is harvested for syrup depends on the temperature. He said the best time to tap is after a cold spell, when temperatures rise. Freezing nights followed by warmer, sunny days are optimal, he noted.

After paying close attention to the weather forecast, Davis headed out to his backyard on Groundhog Day to begin tapping trees.

“This year, I had to wear snowshoes and use a sled to pull my equipment,” noted Davis, thanks to the prior weekend’s blizzard.

To tap the maple tree, Davis drilled a 7-by-16-inch hole in the trunk and then drove a tap, or “spile,” into the tree using the back of an ax. Afterwards, he placed a metal bucket underneath to catch the sap. He repeated this exercise until all 70 trees were tapped, the whole process taking approximately six hours, he said. Davis then stored the sap he collected in a large tank inside the sugar shack until he was ready to begin making syrup.

The next step was to boil the sap, which helped to remove excess water and increase the sugar; on its own, maple tree sap contains only 1 to 3 percent sugar, noted Davis. To heat the sap, Davis custom-made his own heating apparatus by repurposing an old 275-gallon oil tank, which he outfitted with stainless-steel pans to hold the sap. He stacked firewood in the oven below, and used a leaf blower that he connected to the tank to keep the wood intensely hot during the boiling process. The boiling stage may not be for folks who lack patience, as it can take several hours, or even days, depending on how much syrup one is looking to produce. Davis gets anywhere from 4 to 14 gallons in a season.

After several days of boiling, the sap officially became syrup once it reached a temperature of 219 degrees Fahrenheit, said Davis. However, it wasn’t ready for consumption just yet, Davis noted. First, he had to run it through a filter to remove sugar sand: minerals such as potassium nitrate that are left behind during the boiling process.

Once filtered, Davis was finally ready to bottle the maple syrup. He typically uses traditional glass bottles that hold 12 ounces of syrup. Each bottle has a label that reads, Davis Maple Products, and contains a hand-sketched drawing of the backyard and sugar shack that was created by his son, Michael. Davis doesn’t sell any of the syrup he produces, but rather uses it for gifts throughout the year and personal consumption. His favorite way to eat it is on homemade waffles.

Although time-consuming, Davis said he thoroughly enjoys the experience of sugar-making and would put his backyard maple syrup up against any other. 

“It’s every bit as good,” he mused. “Some say it’s even better.” And there’s no comparison between store-brand syrup. “Once you’ve had it, you won’t go back.”


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