Duff’s Sugar House Happy To Be The Smallest Producer In Highland County
Mill Gap, VA – Duff’s Sugar House is the smallest maple syrup producer in Highland County and Tim Duff intends to keep it that way.
Until he was in his twenties, my grandfather never saw processed sugar. The only sweetener he knew was maple sugar that he and his father made every year. Although he doesn’t go all the way to sugar, Tim Duff of Duff’s Sugar house makes his syrup using a process that my grandfather would recognize.
“What makes us feel really good is having some of the older generation come in and when they look at the how we make syrup” says Duff. “They just comment that their grandfather did it this way. We had one fella last year, an older gentleman, he looked at me and shook his head and said My grandfather stopped doing it this way because it was too labor intensive.”
Tim says every thing they do is old style, from the way they tap the trees to the spiels, to the buckets to the flat pan and kettle and wood fire.
“We do not use gasoline powered drill to open the trees” he says. “We don’t even go so far as to use a battery powered cordless drills. We use a brace and bit – real old fashioned. We do not use the modern stainless steel spiels. We’re using galvanized tin, we’re using cast iron, and we’re using wood.”
“We make elderberry spiels here and we use them. One they’re free because I’ve got and elder berry bush, two when you tap the same tree on two sides, one with the more modern system and one with my elderberry, they both flow at the same rate. There’s no difference. “
Tim says after the tree is tapped, they hang a bucket, and that bucket has to be emptied every day. He does use gravity to transfer the sugar water to his holding tank and from there into the flat pan. Then the real work begins.
“I’ve got a full 14 or 15 hour day ahead of me” he says. “All we do, we use gravity, it simply drips in the back of the pan, we keep the fire going, we cook it for a minimum of 12 to 14 hours. I’ll get up tomorrow morning about 4 o’clock; the pan will be cooler than it is now obviously. We drain off everything, it will be about 24 to 28 gallons of really dark liquid, it not syrup – it’s just darn close to being syrup.”
“Then we transfer it to the iron kettle. And that iron kettle, that is an original sugar kettle, it dates to 1885. We fill it up, if I can start that fire by 5 in the morning, by 11:30 12 o’clock I’m pulling off about 4 to 5 gallons of really good syrup. “
Tim says he collects the syrup in a milk can and lets it cool for 24 hours. Then it goes into a big stock pot in the house for the final step: clarifying.
“We’ll take one or two eggs, a little bit of milk, whisk it altogether like you’re making an omelet, and we pour this cold egg mixture into the cold syrup” says Duff. “Whisk it in real good so that it disappears, bring you temperature up because you have to boil this stuff to temperature because you have to bottle it hot. As you’re boiling the syrup and getting off that last little bit of moisture you don’t want in the syrup, the egg cooks. When the egg cooks, it solidifies it floats to the top and it brings up any wood ash, any dust, anything you don’t want in your syrup is being sucked up by the egg, skim it off, and you’ve got some of the clearest syrup you can imagine.”
Tim says that he is the smallest commercial producer in Highland County. The larger house will do in an hour what it takes him seven or eight weeks to do. He only makes about 35 gallons a season. He says he doesn’t make syrup to make syrup but rather to show people how it used to be done. And he worries about the future of his style of production.
“Unfortunately, I would say in two or three generations, you won’t see flat pans” he laments. “You certainly won’t be seeing kettles being used. We’ll be doing here as long as I can still make syrup.”
Duffs Sugar House is located on Route 84 just north of Mill Gap at Fairview Farms and is open for tours during the Maple Festival.