SOMERVILLE — On a cold, gray Saturday in March, people of all ages made their way to the Somerville Community Growing Center to attend the 24th annual Maple Boil Down. Over the course of the day, 525 visitors attended the event.
“This is the first maple syrup boil we’ve opened to the public since March 2020, when the pandemic hit,” said Paula Jordan, site coordinator for the center, a quarter-acre green space used for community programs, including nature education and cultural performances.
“It’s a fun activity for kids,” said Kayla Sirkin, who with her friend and fellow Somerville resident, Ethel Bermejo, attended the maple boil with their children.
Lisa Brukilacchio, board member and cofounder of the center, said they had two boils — one in February to train students and volunteers, and the March 11 boil.
The Somerville Maple Syrup Project has been tapping sugar maples in Somerville and making syrup for 24 years. Liza Kitchell, who has been a volunteer at the center for 20 years, described it as a “deep” community project that involves professors and students from Tufts University, a third-grade science curriculum at Somerville Public Schools, Groundwork Somerville (high school urban youth), and most recently, Aeronaut Brewery, which allows use of its freezers and is making a beer with the maple sap.
Brukilacchio said Somerville High School teacher Frank Carey cofounded the project, and Somerville High metal fabrication program students built the firebox and evaporator pan.
Other partners include the Eagle Eye Institute, an early education program aimed at Black and Brown youth, Project SOUP, Himalayan Kitchen in Union Square, and Connexion in East Somerville, which provides refrigerator, freezer, and kitchen space.
Jordan said in past years, sugar maple trees scattered around Somerville were tapped, but in 2001 Tufts gave permission to tap trees on its Medford/Somerville campus. The Tufts Biology Department’s Environmental Field Studies course has been assisting with collecting sap for the past few years. Since 2009, 10 to 12 trees supporting approximately 15 metal taps ― called spiles ― have been used on the campus.
The spiles are 3 inches long and about 7/16th of an inch in diameter. Jordan said a 12-inch diameter tree (approximately 40 years old) can accommodate one tap. Larger trees can accommodate several taps, with careful placement to allow the tree to heal and recover. Spiles are hammered about an inch into the tree, from 3½ to 5 feet high on the trunk, and are rotated to different locations on the tree each year.
Volunteers Katy Riojas and Janna Rathert had a table where they demonstrated the tapping process and equipment. Sap was collected in metal buckets until 2022, when the group shifted to a metal holder and plastic bag collecting system.
A tap will typically produce 10 to 20 gallons of sap in a season, Brukilacchio said.
Sap flow and maple tapping is related to weather events, requiring freezing temperatures at night and warm temperatures (over 40 degrees) during the day, Jordan explained. This year the group tapped from Jan. 25 to Feb. 19, and collected about 150 gallons of sap.
“This is average for us as we collect only what we need for one to two boils — needing at least 50-60 gallons to boil,” Jordan said.
Jordan said the sap is boiled over a wood-fired metal firebox in a stainless steel evaporator pan with an attached smaller warming pan.
“Sap is poured into a warming pan and let into the evaporator pan to boil,” Jordan said. “Sap is approximately 97 percent water, so we are boiling off the water content. We boil in the evaporator at the Somerville Community Growing Center as long as we can, to about 1.5-3 inches in the pan. That condensed sap is then ‘finished,’ involving more boiling to reduce the liquid to the final sticky syrup product and then a final filtration process before it is canned for storage.”
Jordan said 40 to 46 gallons of sap is typically needed to produce 1 gallon of syrup, but that number can range anywhere from 40 to 60 gallons, depending on the sugar content of the sap.
A volunteer who was assisting with boiling the sap ladled samples of the hot pre-syrup liquid into small paper cups. The next step in the syrup production is Somerville High School, where culinary students will conduct the final boil to produce maple syrup.
Brukilacchio said Native Americans began the practice of maple syrup making and taught colonists/settlers how to make syrup.
“My favorite aspects of the project are the community connections,” Jordan said. “Folks are so happy and excited to be part of it and to also just visit the boil.”
Don Lyman can be reached at email@example.com.