You can make syrup in the city


But one tree stood out: a century-old sugar maple, as wide as a coffee table, that towers over their Arts and Crafts home.
By the end of that winter, the massive tree had produced approximately 35 gallons of sap, which Heiko boiled down to a half-gallon of syrup.
In the years since, the impromptu co-op, now called Oak Lane Maple, has grown into a full-fledged sugarbush (the term for a stand of trees used to make maple syrup).
Something sweet in the neighborhoodThe Somerville Maple Syrup Project outside Boston has been tapping trees and hosting community “boil downs” since 2000.
Straight from the tree, maple sap is only about 2 percent sugar.
“There’s a great tradition of being inventive, industrious and thrifty when it comes to making syrup, and that leads to some really creative techniques or equipment being used.” Urban sugar making is no exception.
How to start an urban maple project“One of the beauties of maple is there’s no barrier to entering the industry,” Isselhardt says.
“Tap a few trees and make syrup.”Having some baseline knowledge is helpful to avoid damaging trees or burning syrup, Isselhardt says.
The ratio of sap to syrup for a sugar maple is about 40 to 1, while 60 gallons of box elder syrup are needed to make a gallon of syrup.
Finally, Poleman says, boils are best done with buddies, as going from sap to syrup will take all day.

In 2018, Jethro Heiko and his family relocated to the leafy neighborhood of East Oak Lane on the north side of Philadelphia from downtown. The idea of having a backyard full of trees, such as hemlock, birch, and catalpa, thrilled them. However, one particular tree caught attention: a century-old sugar maple that looms over their Arts and Crafts house and is as broad as a coffee table. The following year, Heiko’s wife Chelsea gave him a maple-tapping kit for Christmas after seeing that tree.

The enormous tree yielded about thirty-five gallons of sap by the end of that winter, which Heiko reduced to a half-gallon of syrup. In a different year, Heiko might have considered the experience a pleasant diversion from his current hobby. However, the world stopped in March, roughly the same time the sap stopped flowing.


Heiko had plenty of time as COVID lockdowns started to observe all the other sugar maples that bordered the street outside his window. “Maybe not as much as a Vermont forest, but hundreds of them,” he remarks, “I discovered there was a lot of inventory in the neighborhood.”. “.

Being a community organizer by profession, Heiko did what he did best, which was knock on doors and tell his neighbors about the wonderful potential that their trees hold. “They considered me a little crazy.”. “.

However, everyone was a little crazy in 2020.

Heiko and his neighbors successfully harvested syrup from 40 trees the following winter, yielding approximately 20 gallons. This was sufficient for each member to receive a quart, and some was even surplus to be sold at the market. The unplanned cooperative, which is currently known as Oak Lane Maple, has developed into a full-fledged sugarbush (a stand of trees used to produce maple syrup) in the years that have passed.

Though the scent of the sweet stuff often conjures up images of a chilly New England forest, an increasing number of urban sugar producers are tapping trees much closer to home, reintroducing city people to one of North America’s oldest agricultural practices.

There’s something sweet in town.

Since 2000, the Somerville Maple Syrup Project, located outside of Boston, has been tapping trees and holding “boil downs” for the community. The Somerville Community Growing Center is a quarter-acre green space located in the center of the most populous municipality in New England. It was created by two teachers who wanted to provide a practical science lesson for the local students.

According to Lisa Brukilacchio, who has been involved in the project from the start, “we put notices in the paper asking if residents wanted their sugar maples tapped.”. After meeting every tree and learning how to tap them, the students traveled around in a van. “.

Before each boil, the sap is cooled by a nearby food pantry, and a restaurant lets the group use its kitchen to complete the syrup-making process—the last step in the boiling process that calls for a more regulated heat source than a wood fire. The most well-known aspect of the project is the boil downs, which take place between refrigeration and finishing and fill the city’s streets with fragrant steam all day and night.

Paula Jordan, a volunteer for the project for fifteen years, describes it as a glorious, joyous community event.

Maple sap contains only 2 percent sugar straight from the tree. The sap needs to be boiled down to a much sweeter 66 percent sugar, which requires many hours and a lot of power, in order to become a topping fit for a short stack. Commercial producers use powerful evaporators and reverse osmosis machines, which remove a fair amount of water from the sap before boiling it. Conversely, small-scale producers need to get resourceful.

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One of the industry’s defining characteristics, according to University of Vermont Extension maple specialist Mark Isselhardt, is experimentation. “Making syrup is a great way to follow a long-standing tradition of creativity, thrift, and hard work, which results in some really unique methods or tools being used. “The production of sugar in cities is not unique.

Heiko recently turned over management of Oak Lane Maple to urban farmer Nick Lodise and Wyncote Academy, a non-traditional high school where students boil sap in fancy equipment purchased with USDA grant money. However, Heiko’s early years were filled with a lot of trial and error.

Heiko, who tried an electric hot plate first, says, “I didn’t quite realize how much energy it would require evaporating the sap.”. After six hours, I still couldn’t get the pot to boil. He eventually discovered success using a banquet tray placed atop a turkey fryer with two burners.


Another challenge was the sheer amount of sap that Heiko’s sugarbush produced as it grew into hundreds of trees. Sugar makers in urban areas must manually gather sap, but larger operations use vacuum tubes to channel it to a central location.

Heiko bought “the Maple Van,” an antique Ford Econoline, in 2021. He and his teenage son “would hang off the back like garbage men” on collection days, heading off to fill up smaller buckets in the van’s bigger tank. Heiko converted an unfinished closet in his basement into a makeshift refrigeration unit to store the sap, which spoils easily if it isn’t kept cool.

Based in Burlington’s downtown, Tap ONE Vermont operates from there. Bringing a rural Vermont tradition to a more urban area with a more diverse population . was the idea, according to co-founder Ada Dunkley. for those who may not have seen it previously in particular. “.

When clear, unremarkable sap turns into a golden, caramel-like syrup at the boil, Dunkley claims that even in a state like Vermont, where maple is the national crop, there is no shortage of “amazement and wonder.”.

Another Tap ONE co-founder, Maeve Poleman, adds, “It’s basic evaporation science, but it kind of feels like a miracle.”.

How to launch a project involving urban maple.

According to Isselhardt, “one of the beauties of maple is there’s no barrier to entering the industry.”. “Making syrup, tap a few trees.”. “.

According to Isselhardt, it helps to have some baseline knowledge to prevent burning syrup or harming trees. Try contacting the local university extension if you need assistance. Furthermore, he says, people must ensure they’re using proper (i.e. e. to prevent contaminating the syrup, use food-grade) equipment. Though iconic, metal sap buckets might contain lead, so use plastic instead.

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When nighttime lows are below freezing and daytime highs are in the 40s to 50s, late winter is when maple sap usually begins to flow. The pressure created by this freeze-thaw cycle in the tree allows the sap to drip from a metal tap drilled into the tree. Sugar makers play an annual guessing game when to tap. Tapping too late could result in missing a significant sap run, while tapping too early could allow bacteria to clog up the lines. Due to the complete reliance of sap flow on weather, most people monitor the forecast and start tapping a few days ahead of ideal conditions. The tapping season ends when the tree produces buds.

In the event that sugar maples are not native to your area, sap from other trees, such as birch, box elder, and walnut, is also generally sweet; however, making syrup from them may require more sap and a longer boiling time. For every gallon of syrup, one sugar maple requires 60 gallons of box elder syrup; the sap to syrup ratio for sugar maples is approximately 40 to 1.

Lastly, Poleman notes that since boiling sap to syrup takes all day, it’s best done with friends. The lengthy nature of the process is part of its beauty and what gives it its sweetness. “.

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