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Chester Teen Ryan Neal’s Maple Syrup Production in Full Swing
By Matt Rittenhouse  3-2-17

Although he’s just a sophomore in high school, Chester’s Ryan Neal is already a veteran maple syrup producer. And his is not just a hobby backyard operation with a few buckets, it’s a state-of-the-art production with about 250 taps in the woods behind his home and on a neighbor's land, and some pretty sophisticated pumps and lines.

With a great, though early, start to the season last month, Neal is on track to have about 80 gallons of the pancake topper by the time the maples stop running. With an intricate maze of blue lines and a new vacuum pump set up in the woods behind his home, Neal was excited to say that he’s looking at pulling around 30 gallons of sap per tree this year. To put that into perspective, an old-fashioned tap and bucket would be closer to five gallons a season.

"That was my big problem: Getting these trees to run enough. But this year it doesn’t look like that’s going to be a problem," said Neal.

 

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Neal started his maple sugaring when he was 13 years old and in seventh grade. It started out as a hobby after he and a friend got the syruping bug, but in short order he was improving his operation.

This year he’s also got a new evaporator that boils down an impressive 22 gallons an hour. The furnace is a secondhand homemade boiler he found a great deal for on the internet, and he had a custom stainless steel pan made up by a welder. This is a great improvement from his previous cinderblock boiler, and he said he’s very pleased with the results.

"This is way better than last year," he noted.

Though it took a few boils to learn the ins and outs of this particular pan, the piece of equipment that allows the sap to burn off extra moisture and increase its sugar content, he was soon an expert on just when the sap was ready to pour off for finishing and bottling.

 

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In addition to the new evaporator and vacuum system to improve on how much sap he can pull, he’s also invested in a new pump to keep it all flowing smoothly from holding tank to holding tank.

And Neal does this all while still getting his school work done. While the first couple weeks saw him getting little sleep, especially as a recently replaced pump needed constant maintenance, he got some help with the schedule last week as February vacation from Pinkerton Academy rolled around.

Ryan’s Sugar Shack has produced more syrup this year than in all of his previous years combined, something the producer said is owed to his new system.

While he gets some help from his parents, it’s really a one-man show at this point.

"I can’t really help anymore,' joked his mom, Wendy Neal, referencing the complicated nature of her son's operation.

His parents have been instrumental in providing business loans for his work, however. But as with any bank, Neal has always had to justify the expenses and pay the loans back in a timely fashion. And that’s something he’s never had a problem with.

The young producer is an avid researcher, both online and with the help of the more veteran producers in the state. He keeps up good lines of communication with his peers and after a short time of talking with him about his passion, it's clear he knows the material inside and out.

And that’s not just about the science behind the trees. He’s also the designer, installer and troubleshooter of all of his equipment. He does his own electrical work and plumbing and is always looking for ways to improve his set-up.

"There’s not a whole lot of small producers using this type of equipment, so I had to figure it all out," said Neal. "This is what your big producers are going to do."

"I’ve definitely learned a lot through this whole thing. I've come out of this, at this point, with a lot more skills than I had to begin. Just a lot of research and a learning as you go kind of thing," said the young producer.

But perhaps more important than the technical side is just how Neal's syrup tastes.

"I like it the best out of everything I've ever produced," he said.

While sugar maples are the powerhouse producers for the area, Neal makes his syrup with what he’s got on hand. It takes a little more time to boil down red maple sap, but the flavor is definitely on par with the sugars, he said. Neal boils 60 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup.

While Neal has 200 or so red maples tapped out back, he’s supplementing that with some sugar maples on a neighbor’s property.

"You can definitely taste the difference," said Neal, as he kept an eye on the evaporator turning more sap into syrup.

The best way to get some of Neal's syrup is to visit his family home at 118 Meadow Fox Lane in Chester or check out his website at: ryansugarshack.com for ordering. Email ryansugarshack@gmail.com with questions.

Photos by Matt Rittenhouse