When you think of Kentucky-made products, bourbon, barbecue, and even country ham come to mind. But maple syrup? You might think syrup making’s just for folks in the Northeast.
But you’d be mistaken.
Turns out, you can make delicious maple syrup in the Bluegrass State—if you’ve got a good stand of sugar maple trees, you know what you’re doing, and you’ve got a passion for it.
Lee Blythe of Auburn does.
“I absolutely love it. I’m nuts over it to be honest,” says Blythe, who began making maple syrup last year with his mother, Terry, his wife, Jill, and their children, Jackson, 9, and Shelby, 12.
Blythe and his mother own and operate Federal Grove Restaurant and Bed & Breakfast in Auburn, located on property that was part of a 1785 federal land grant to Jonathan Clark, eldest brother to William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
The original Federal Grove farm—established in 1805—took its name from the large grove of sugar maple trees already on the land.
Even today, the area is full of sugar maples.
“It’s really unusual for Kentucky, what we have here,” says Blythe. “Most woods in Kentucky are full of a mix of other hardwood trees, but these woods are almost reminiscent of what you’d see up in Vermont. Two out of three trees are sugar maples.”
The trees had been tapped for syrup before, but they’d had a long, 100-year hiatus when Blythe decided to put them to work again last year. The majority of Blythe’s 60-acre sugar bush—the term for acreage that’s tapped in syrup production—lies on a neighbor’s property across the street.
“We’d been looking for something else to do. So we decided to give it a try,” Blythe says simply.
It didn’t hurt that Blythe—former owner of a landscape company and horticultural services business—is a natural working with trees.
So far, their experiment has been a success: last year, their first in the business, the family tapped around 110 trees and bottled around 40 gallons of pure maple syrup. They sold it at their restaurant and B&B in tiny 8-oz. bottles.
This year, they hope to expand dramatically: Blythe has his sights set on tapping between 600 and 700 trees in 2010, and he hopes to produce between 250 to 300 gallons of syrup. In addition to the 8-oz. bottles, they plan to market the syrup in pint sizes as well.
Blythe is one of only a handful of syrup makers operating in Kentucky. He believes he may be
one of the southernmost syrup makers in the country.
“We don’t intend for it to be a huge industry, but I think it’s one that’s such a novelty in this part of the world, that a lot of folks want to sample what we’re doing,” Blythe says.
Labor of love
So, how does it taste?
Blythe wanted to know for himself how his Federal Grove Pure Maple Syrup compared to the best from the Northeast. So he sent a sample to a friend and veteran syrup maker in Vermont last year. The friend reported that he enjoyed Blythe’s syrup as much as any he’d ever tasted.
The process Blythe uses is exactly like what they do in the Northeast. It’s time-consuming and labor-intensive. And during sugaring season, it means a lot of nights without sleep.
From January through March, Blythe and his family collect sap from the sugar maples. At first they used buckets to collect sap from the spiles—which are drilled about 2 inches into the trees—but now they’ve moved to a tube system that deposits the sap into larger reservoirs.
To preserve their health, trees have to be 10 inches in diameter, or about 40 years old, before they can safely be tapped.
“It’s a labor of love,” Blythe says, adding that his kids love checking the taps. “Once the sap starts running, you’re out there constantly, early in the mornings and late at night, collecting. And then once you collect the sap, it’s a fresh product, so you want to go ahead and begin boiling it down right away. Once you start the boiling, you can’t just stop, so a lot of times, you’re staying up all night to boil.”
Blythe traveled to New England to purchase his syrup making equipment (except his evaporator, a flat 3×8′ pan divided into sections that was purchased here in Kentucky), which he uses to boil and condense the sap into syrup. It takes between 35 and 50 gallons of sap to make 1 finished gallon of pure maple syrup. The boiling process generates about 1 gallon of syrup per hour.
The process is tricky: if you overcook the sap, the syrup turns to sugar. If you undercook it, it turns watery. But in just one season—with the help and wisdom of others more experienced than himself, he is careful to add—Blythe’s gotten the hang of it.
When the batch is perfect, the family bottles the syrup by hand in their restaurant’s commercial kitchen.
The clear glass jars let their syrup’s beautiful amber color shine through.
“In Kentucky, people aren’t looking for a light syrup,” says Blythe. “They want a darker syrup, a pancake syrup.”
And that’s just what Blythe’s serving up.
SWEET, PURE KENTUCKY MAPLE SYRUP
PURE MAPLE SYRUP is made solely from boiled-down sugar maple sap. No other ingredients are added.
Blythe says today’s commercial pancake syrups, which are made primarily from corn syrup, have little if any maple syrup added. But he’s seeing a growing demand for pure maple syrup, since it’s a truly organic product.
WANT TO TRY SOME? Federal Grove Pure Maple Syrup is available for sale on location at Federal Grove Restaurant and Bed & Breakfast, 475 East Main Street, Auburn, KY 42206. Or you can place an order by phone at (270) 542-6106; by e-mailing email@example.com; or by using the message form online at www.federalgrove.com. The syrup is also available at gift shops specializing in Kentucky products throughout the state.
The Blythes plan to hold a Maple Syrup Festival—perhaps the first-ever in Kentucky—on February 26-28 and March 5-7. Visitors will be able to see, firsthand, how the syrup is made. Call (270) 542-6106 for details.