by Cori Hilsgen – firstname.lastname@example.org
On a cool and windy day, March 16, visitors enjoyed maple-syrup sundaes and hot chocolate at the sugar shack during the Maple Syrup Festival at the St. John’s Arboretum. All who tasted the treats were pleasantly surprised by the sweetness of the syrup.
Those who made it to the sugar shack were able to view the new $22,000 stainless-steel evaporator, learn about the process of making maple syrup and identify various fur pelts such as skunk, raccoon, mink, rabbit, deer, beaver and others. A Native American demonstration of how things were done many years ago and children’s scavenger hunts for prizes were also offered.
John O’Reilly, the educational coordinator for SJU programming, explained how some logs had been taken from the forest. Tom Kroll is the arboretum’s director and land manager, so he determines what wood gets taken out. The cutters are Forest Stewardship Council-certified and do not clear-cut any wood.
Being FSC-certified means the Arboretum harvests timber on a rotating cycle in order to promote forest diversity.
O’Reilly said the logging is done in the winter so they are not damaging the forest when the ground is soft, but instead are driving and hauling wood on the frozen ground.
At five-minute intervals, visitors took tours into the woods to observe the actual sap collection.
Nick Kroll led visitors on a tour of the tapping process. Kroll is a graduate of St. John’s University and the son of Tom Kroll.
On the walk in the woods, Kroll also talked about how the arboretum manages the forest. Workers cut out the non-maple and unhealthy trees. Kroll explained they have a very healthy, well-managed forest at the arboretum, explaining it is a certified 100-percent sustainable forest, which means throughout the entire arboretum they only cut as much wood as grows every year.
Kroll said almost all the trees are maples. Thus, sap-gatherers can be selective and select the better trees.
“Out here in the sugar bush we have a lot of maples, which makes it easy,” he said.
When looking for a tree to tap, they prefer to tap the bigger and healthier trees. Kroll explained the smaller the tree is, the more it is going to be affected. Smaller trees don’t heal as well.
On the previous weekend, more than 150 volunteers helped tap 1,200 of the season’s taps. The trees to be tapped had earlier been paint-balled to make it easier for the volunteers to spot them.
“It will wash off in the first rainstorm, but is a good way to mark the tree,” Kroll said.
For the visitors, Kroll measured the diameter of a tree. A 12-inch tree can be tapped once, and an 18-inch tree can be tapped twice. Kroll pointed out an 18-inch tree. He said if the branches look good, there are no splits and the tree looks healthy, then they can put two taps in.
Kroll pointed out old tap holes. He showed a tap hole that was less than 10 years old that was almost healed. He said tapping does not hurt the tree.
In tapping, between 1 and 3 percent of a tree’s sap is taken. He said sap-gatherers don’t like to collect sap above or below an old tap hole because the tree works like a “bundle of straws.” After sap comes out of those “straws,” gatherers avoid tapping into the same “straws” from the previous year.
Kroll offered visitors a chance to hand-drill a hole in the tree and then gently tap a metal spile in about one-inch deep. The spile is used to help the sap flow from the tree to the bucket or bag that collects the sap.
Volunteers who tap the majority of the trees use battery-powered drills so it goes much faster. The drill bit then needs to be reversed and not just pulled out of the tree trunk. The spile needs to be deep enough so it can hold the weight of the collecting bag or bucket as it fills with sap. If a bucket is used, a metal cover is placed over the bucket to prevent anything from going into the sap.
“Maple syrup is a natural source of sugar,” Kroll said.
He was surprised when he noticed the back side of a tree was actually flowing, even though he thought it shouldn’t have been. Kroll said it should have been frozen. He said even though the outdoor temperature was cool, the tree was warm enough for the sap to flow.
Visitors were able to taste the sap which tastes a lot like water. Kroll said at the time the sap comes from the tree it’s at a concentration of only about 1 percent sugar.
“In a week or so, if we will get a good run, you’ll have just about 2 percent sugar,” Kroll said. “On a good, warm day you will have a drip, drip, drip, but you will never have a spout gushing down.”
Josie Belter, a junior at the College of St. Benedict, explained what happens to the sap once it’s collected from the trees. Belter has been an employee of the arboretum for the last three years.
“I love it out here,” Belter said.
Volunteers, she explained, empty bags and buckets into blue barrels. A tractor then drives around and pumps the sap into a tank on a trailer pulled by the tractor. It is then stored in barrels on the hill above the sugar shack. The flow of gravity brings the sap down into the evaporator, a fire is built in the firebox and the sap goes into one end and then flows through on the pans on the top of the evaporator. As the fire heats it up, the water evaporates away and the sugar is left behind.
Belter explained how during the cooking process some of the nutrients and minerals, such as calcium and silica, harden into a chalky element and are filtered through so the remaining syrup is smooth and doesn’t have a gritty taste to it. She said the syrup is then bottled.
Gary Gillitzer, a volunteer and a teacher at CSB, was in the sugar shack answering questions and explaining about the colors of maple syrup.
Different syrups vary in color and taste. The lighter syrup comes from early-season sap collection. The darker syrup, which is often sold in stores, comes from late-season sap collection.
Syrup makers are optimistic about the season this year. Last year’s sap produced a poor quality of syrup. Even though the sap was collected in the beginning of the season, all the sap was late-season sap because everything warmed up so fast.
Tapping maple syrup at SJU began in the 1940s when the monastery learned the maple-syrup production process due to sugar rationing during World War II.
At the arboretum, maple syrup is made in the spring of the year when temperatures are below freezing in the evening and above freezing during the day. Ideal temperatures are low 30 degrees at night and 40 degrees during the day. It takes almost 40 gallons of sap from the maple trees to make one gallon of maple syrup. Only water gets added to the sap to make maple syrup, so it’s a “natural” food that contains no colors, preservatives or additives.
Once a tree is big enough to be tapped, it can be used year after year. A tap can yield 10-12 gallons of sap, about one quart of finished syrup, during a season.
St. John’s Arboretum is 2,830 acres of lakes, prairie, oak savannah and woodland that surrounds St. John’s Abbey and University.
Visitors will have another chance to visit the arboretum for the Maple Syrup Festival on Saturday, April 6. For more information, contact 320-363-3163.
Hilsgen is a contributing reporter for the Newsleaders. The central Minnesota native is a wife, mother and grandmother. She has a Bachelor's degree in Organizational Management and Communication from Concordia University – St. Paul, MN and enjoys learning about and sharing other people's stories through the pages of the Newsleaders.