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From sap to sweet syrup: tapping into Bowdoin’s maples with the Organic Garden

April 5, 2024

Kaya Patel

Though Bowdoin is known for its pines, there’s another tree on campus rising to fame in the dining hall.

Since 2012, the Bowdoin Organic Garden (BOG) has been tapping the College’s maple trees to produce maple syrup. Organic Garden Supervisor Lisa Beneman currently heads the effort to make this classic New England treat.

The red and sugar maples that the BOG taps are spread throughout South Campus, with patches by Thorne Dining Hall, the South Street BOG garden, the Coffin Street parking lot, the BOG Barn and the Outing Club’s Schwartz Outdoor Leadership Center.

To tap a tree, Beneman drills a hole through the bark of a maple tree and inserts a spile. Beneman assured that tapping does not harm the maple tree as long as one uses protective techniques, like using a clean drill and properly spaced holes from year to year.

“When done well and correctly, tapping should not harm the trees that you’re doing it on, but done poorly, it can go wrong,” Beneman said. “There’s a certain amount of learning that I would encourage anyone to do before just going out and tapping trees.”

Beneman then hangs a bucket or bag on the spile to collect the sap. While an industrial operation might have tubing threaded through the maples to bring the sap to a single collection point, Beneman and student BOG volunteers manually collected sap every afternoon from mid-February to the end of March and brought it back to Thorne.

BOG Officer Cedar Greve ’26 began collecting sap last year and finds the process to be a special way of getting in touch with nature and expressing their awe for the quantity of sap that the maples produce.

“The trees have been doing this work all night and then every single day. We would go through and collect, and we were getting like 70 gallons of sap,” Greve said. “It is just really impressive that they’re able to do that and that people figured this out, and now we can make maple syrup.”

Once the sap has been brought to Thorne, Beneman boils large batches of sap in the dining hall’s evaporator. When the sap reaches 219 degrees Fahrenheit, the syrup is complete and ready to be used. Though the evaporation process may seem simple, it is by no means quick.

“If I’m doing a 100 gallon boil, it takes me from about 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. to get to the finished product,” Beneman said.

About 40 to 60 gallons of sap are needed to make a gallon of syrup. The BOG typically yields about ten gallons each year, but this year, the BOG only yielded about five.

Beneman attributes this year’s smaller quantity to suboptimal weather. Prime sugaring weather occurs when nighttime temperatures drop below freezing and daytime temperatures rise above freezing, with sunny weather preferred as well. This freeze-thaw pattern causes sap to flow more freely.

“The sap only runs when you get that good temperature swing, and so even if you have a cold night, but then the next day it doesn’t get above freezing, it’s not warm enough to run. Or if it gets warm, but it’s really cloudy, it won’t run as well either,” Beneman said.

This winter, Beneman noticed that cold nights were typically paired with cold days and warm nights with warm days, which didn’t encourage sap to flow. Though Beneman noted that there is always annual fluctuation in sap production, unfavorable sugaring weather is becoming increasingly common as climate change brings warmer winters with more extreme temperature fluctuations to Maine.

“Typically, sugaring season in New England is between four and seven weeks long, so it’s a short window when those conditions are favorable. The exact [timing] of that has shifted a lot in the past 50 years with changing climate, so it starts earlier,” Beneman said. “It typically used to go well into April, and it really doesn’t anymore.”

Beneman boiled the last batch of syrup for the season on Tuesday after removing all of the spiles from their trees last Friday.

All the syrup that the BOG makes—along with the rest of its produce—goes to Dining Services. Since the BOG produces a limited amount of syrup each year, Dining generally reserves the syrup for special occasions—such as the Maine Maple Sunday and Locavore dinners—and for cooking in dishes rather than pouring over pancakes.

Noah Goldwasser ’27, who volunteered to collect sap this year, noted that helping produce the syrup gives him a stronger connection to the campus environment.

“You don’t associate a lot of the trees we tap with production—there’s two behind Thorne which really don’t look like they’d be producing anything good, but it’s just cool that we can harvest a really fun treat for campus not even a two minute walk away,” Goldwasser said.


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