- Hildi Gabel
The Somerville Maple Boil Down: Back on Tap, Back on Track!
The Somerville Maple Boil Down: Back on Tap, Back on Track!
By Hildi Gabel
Growing Center Writing Team
In typical late New England winter fashion, Saturday, March 11 jumped from wet flurries to rain to bright gray sky – and still didn't stop 500 people from coming to the 24th Annual Somerville Maple Boil Down, our first public, community boil since right before the pandemic shutdown of March 2020! Children and adults alike came to learn how sap is collected and boiled into syrup, using all five senses to experience the process for themselves.
View the Slideshow below to see photos, or skip down to continue reading.
Truly a group effort, we had lots of partnerships and collaborations this year, including with Groundwork Somerville, our co-host! Students and faculty from the Tufts University’s Environmental Studies Program assisted with tapping and sap/data collection; Aeronaut Brewing Company gave us cooler storage; Connexion United Methodist Church provided kitchen space for finishing the first batch; students from the Somerville High School CTE Culinary Arts Program got to finish the second batch in their school kitchen; and Project SOUP provided critical last-minute freezer storage.
That process from tree to serving cup is magical, and lengthy - and this year, also involved more than sixty people who gave their time willingly. Teams of volunteers, including the aforementioned Tufts students, tapped ten sugar maple trees on the Tufts campus in January and February, collecting more than 150 gallons of sap over many weeks.
Because freshly tapped sap is 97% water, the sap must boil for hours and hours to concentrate the sugars into the sweet substance we know, so the final amount of syrup can only be measured in pints and quarts - not gallons!
Back in February, we held an educational Maple Boil - just to train our Maple Project volunteers on the process - to boil down half of the sap we’d collected and make Saturday’s Public Boil Down a bit shorter and easier to manage! We also donated around 30-40 gallons of sap to Aeronaut in exchange for the fridge space (keep an eye out for their maple beer!).
The maple volunteers spent Saturday sifting and heating sap in the evaporator, which billowed out smoky steam. In addition to viewing the actual boiling, visitors flocked to all kinds of learning stations.
At one, you could embark on a scavenger hunt to find a spile, a sugarbush bird, a sap bucket, and the scent of steam. At another, you saw maple-tapping tools firsthand. And at yet another, you could compare trunk slices from different tree species to discover how trees move sap through the xylem and photosynthesized sugars through the phloem. The sap at mid-boil stage (around noon) tasted sweet, light, and slightly floral, like something you’d expect to flow through a plant. By the mid-afternoon, it was almost maple syrup.
A Somerville Tradition
This local tradition stems back to 2000 when a group of Somerville High School CTE students and vocational teacher Frank Carey collaborated with Gaining Ground, Inc. farmer Mark Waltemire to tap trees around Somerville and at the Growing Center!) and then make syrup right here outside using a makeshift boiler made out of cinderblocks - unknowingly launching one of Greater Boston’s first community maple boils ever. (For more info on the history of this awesome winter community collaboration, see our Maple Syrup Project page.)
Maple Production: The History
There is a long history of maple production in North America. This year, Project SOUP kindly provided us freezer space to keep sap fresh after warm weather caused the run to end early. Freezing the sap causes much of the water in the sap to freeze - a call back to some of the earliest syrup production methods. Sugar water has a lower freezing point than plain water, which means water will freeze from sap first and leave behind a more concentrated sugar solution. Long before European settlers came to North America, many Native American groups across the Northeast collected and boiled sap – and often froze the sap and discarded the ice, reserving a concentrated solution that would boil faster.
The “recipe” for sap production is below freezing nights (when the sap rises) and above freezing daytime temperatures, which causes the sap to flow. During this time of year, when it starts feeling slightly warmer during the day, sap begins flowing through the xylem of tree trunks to the buds. The sap provides nutrients and energy for new leaves as the seasons change, allowing trees to replenish each year. But trees do reach sap production limits; when it starts to slow down, we know when to remove the taps. Tapping is sustainable when done correctly on a mature tree, and has been done for centuries in the region.
Alexander Cotnoir gives a great overview of sap-tapping history in Audubon Vermont. What we think of as late March-into-April is referred to as Sogalikas “sew-gal-EE-kas” – or “time of maple sugar making” – by the Abenaki people. The Abenaki are an Algonquian speaking group indigenous to the Wabanahkik region (covering parts of Northern New England, Quebec, and the Canadian Maritimes) who along with the Iroquois, Micman (Mi’kmaq), and other Native American peoples of the Eastern Woodland, continue to uphold a long history of collecting and processing maple sap. After tapping and concentrating sap, indigenous groups would either put sap in containers among hot coals or boil it over fire, laying the groundwork for the methods and technology still used today. Maple sugar and syrup continued to be a fixture in the North American region as European settlers came and took up the practice. By 1860, 40 million pounds of maple sugar and 1.6 million gallons of syrup were being produced in the U.S. (Courtesy of UVM)
The Final Product
After Saturday’s Boil Down, the final concentration of sap - about four gallons worth - was poured out, stored in a fridge for the night, and delivered to the Culinary Arts department of the Somerville High School CTE program, where teacher David Ginovisian would work with his budding bakers and cooks to “finish” the syrup over a professional stove. Between both boils, we ended up with just short of two gallons of finished syrup.
A Community Effort
The Somerville Maple Syrup Project continues to bring together different facets of the community and get people’s hands involved directly in the process.
Last year, Mica Weld (Tufts ’22) made a Zine for the Growing Center to demystify the Maple tapping and syruping, and it is a great resource for all ages. The Zine will tell you how to identify a sugar maple tree, how to collect and boil sap, what to know about the climate effects on Sugar Maples, and much more.
Check out the full Zine - Maple: The Sweet Facts!
Mica explains the experience this way:
“Going out and collecting each day not only taught me, in a more practical way, how much sap I should expect to collect given the temperature, but also a sense for each tree I was collecting from. I found that I was proud of each ounce of sap that the trees produced. Taking a deeper dive into the history and science of maple tapping while researching for the zine opened my eyes to how little I had known previously and how much history there was behind a product that I had previously taken for granted. Each time I thought that I was close to the bottom of the pool of information, I realized there was an entirely new way of thinking about maple tapping or tapping trees in general. It was and still is a life changing experience.”
Trees in urban environments can blend in as city infrastructure, perhaps likened to a lamppost or stoplight. Witnessing the process of making syrup from start-to-finish re-invigorates trees as living organisms, capable of complex mechanisms that not only nourish their own lives, but sweeten our own. To another year of seeing that life around us, and to Somerville syrup!
In an acknowledgment of the land, Tufts University recognizes that it is located on colonized Wôpanâak (Wampanoag) and Massachusett Tribe traditional territory. The Somerville Community Growing center sits on Massachusett Tribe Traditional territory.