by TaLeiza Calloway
The making of maple syrup is a tradition in the St. Joseph area.
It needs a good freeze-thaw cycle to help lock in the taste that many love to add to their pancakes or French toast. Boiling down the sap of the maple tree makes pure syrup.
Lessons like this and more were recently available just three miles from town during opening day of the annual Maple Syrup Festival in Collegeville.
It takes a few months for syrup production, most commonly during early spring months, according to the Minnesota Maple Syrup Producers Association. Minnesota is one of 17 states and three provinces that produces pure maple syrup.
While the monks at St. John’s Abbey have been making maple syrup since 1942, the festival has been hosted by St. John’s Arboretum for about 10 years, said Assistant Arboretum Director John O’ Reilly.
O’Reilly said last year they had about 120 gallons of syrup. This season, they have about 14 gallons of syrup to date. Some of it they had to throw away as some sap spoiled on the tree due to the warm weather.
“This has been a bad year for maple syrup,” O’Reilly said. “but the show must go on. We have enough for the festival, and we will be here next weekend (March 31).”
The annual two-day festival was created to serve as a great educational opportunity about the process of making maple syrup.
“It’s also a way to welcome spring,” he said.
This March has felt more like late April or early May, thus making it a bad year for tree tapping, sap collecting and syrup-making. This March has been one of the all-time warmest on record for central Minnesota.
The warmest March on record for St. Cloud occurred in 1910, according to meteorologist Bob Weisman of St. Cloud State University. That said, the maple-syrup show went on. Hundreds lined up for horse-drawn carriage rides to the “Sugar Shack” (the place the actual syrup is made) to participate in tree-tapping demonstrations, to listen to live music and to taste the sweet vanilla ice-cream sundaes topped with hot maple syrup.
The event is also another way to get people outdoors enjoying nature. The Sugar Shack sits in the middle of the woods — literally. It is surrounded by trees, a neighboring field and a stockpile of wood used for the boiling of the sap. The stockpile stands in the shape of a little cabin.
Last year about 1,500 people attended the event during the course of the two days. O’Reilly hopes to surpass that number this year.
Nine-year-old Calvin Engnell of St. Cloud was happy to take in the lesson on the syrup-making process. The Cub Scout, who was working on his Maple Syrup badge, had one word to describe his experience: “Good.”
It was his first time at the event. Engnell had an assignment to find about five items during the event to earn his badge; he found six, he said proudly. He even helped student naturalist Courtney Schirmers drill the hole for the spile.
“He’ll be an expert in no time,” Lea Engnell said of her son, Calvin.
During Schirmers’ tree-tapping demonstration, she explained just how much sap it takes to make one gallon of syrup. It’s not as simple as one gallon equals one gallon.
“Sap is precious to us,” Schirmers said. “It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.”
From live entertainment by local artists and educational booths to tours of the Sugar Shack and the sharing of maple-syrup recipes, the annual event offered something for everyone and for all ages. For example, 5-year-old Julia Navratil of Sartell helped choose the spot on the tree to start the tapping process. She found a good area because shortly after the hole was drilled and the spile was in place, sap began to drip.
The Maple Syrup Festival continues this weekend with day two of the event slated for tomorrow. Admission is free for College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University students, Arboretum youth members (youth ages 17 and under) and monastery (St. John’s Abbey and St. Benedict’s Monastery) members. There is a nominal fee to participate.
For more information about the event, call 320-363-3163 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.