Campus Dining produces syrup from St. Mary’s Lake maple trees
Rose Androwich | Monday, May 1, 2023
For the past three years, Notre Dame Campus Dining has collected sap from maple trees by St. Mary’s Lake, Campus Dining executive director Luigi Alberganti said. The sap is boiled down to produce maple syrup for the priests living in Corby Hall, he added.
“It’s just to honor our priests [in Corby Hall],” Alberganti said. “That this is their house.”
Alberganti said the process takes time, but the results are worth it.
“This has been done with a lot of camaraderie. Collecting the sap and cooking it and watching processes is a labor of love,” he said. “At the end, it is liquid gold.”
This year, Campus Dining has collected 800 gallons of sap to produce about 18 vats of maple syrup, Alberganti said. The process of making the syrup takes three to four days.
Sending the right person to tap the maple trees is very important, Alberganti said.
“You want to make sure that you identify the correct tree because when they don’t have any leaves, you just see a trunk, so there has to be a person that knows what a maple tree looks like,” Alberganti said.
Cassie Majetic, a Saint Mary’s biology professor, explained how to distinguish between a black maple tree and a sugar maple tree.
“If you see a black maple and a sugar maple, and the bark or the buds are not the things that make them different from one another, then you’re not gonna be able to identify them in the winter,” Majetic said. “You would have to wait until they start to flower or they start to put out leaves or whatever that distinguishing characteristic is of them.”
The sap collection takes place in below freezing weather conditions, Alberganti explained.
“In early spring and late summer, when the temperature goes below freezing normally at night and then during the day it goes above freezing, that causes the sap to flow,” he said.
KC Nieboer, a retired recreation employee for Bendix Woods County Park, said they tap into around 150 to 160 maple trees yearly. Nieboer said this year, they produced 66 gallons of maple syrup.
It takes 40 gallons of sap to produce one bottle of maple syrup, she said, but the number depends on the sugar content of the sap.
Inherently in the sap, there’s not much sugar, Nieboer said.
“The sugar content of sap on a good run is maybe 3%,” Nieboer said. “There’s not much sugar in it and you have to get rid of a lot of water.”
Bendix Woods uses a wood-fired evaporator to boil the maple syrup, Nieboer said. The process takes longer than using propane.
“We have a wood fired evaporator, which takes a little longer than if you were to heat the sap with propane,” she said. “When you’re using propane, you could keep the fire going continuously.”
The use of a wood-fired evaporator changes the grade of the syrup, Nieboer added. With the wood-fired process, the syrup is darker and three or four grade. Nieboer said the four grades of maple syrup are golden, amber, dark or very dark.
Catherine Pellegrino, a Saint Mary’s research librarian and a volunteer at Bendix Woods, said the local trees have been tapped for over 50 years.
“They have what’s called a sugar bush, which is a stand of sugar maple trees that grow naturally on a hillside, and they have been tapping those trees and making syrup from the sap for over 50 years now,” Pellegrino said.
The process of collecting maple syrup has been done throughout history. Pellegrino said early settlers in America would tap into trees and boil the sap down.
“In mid-February, they would go out to where those sugar maples were,” she said. “They would plan to spend anywhere from five days to a week or more out there in the woods camping out in February to tap the trees and boil the sap down on site.”
Pellegrino said maple sugar and honey were the only sweeteners early settlers in the region had.
“Maple sugar and honey were the only sweeteners they had,” Pellegrino said. “And so they would spend a week or so in the winter, getting a year’s worth of sugar and bring it back to their homestead, and that would be their sugar for the year.”