Tree Tappers

Last week, sixth graders in Montana Vasquez-Grinnell's science class checked out the trees in front of Hemm House for a perfect maple to tap. They gathered around a prime contender, as their teacher pulled down a branch for them to examine.

"See how the buds look like ice cream cones?" asked Dr. Vasquez-Grinnell. "That's how you can tell it's a sugar maple."

Now that the class had a tree in its sights, it was time to begin. Conditions proved perfect, as temps dipped below freezing the night before and now warmed into the low 40s.

"Let's go drill some holes!" called Dr. Vasquez-Grinnell.

Her class responded with gusto:

"Yay!"

"I want to hammer!"

"Me, too!"

"I want to drill and hammer!"

Dr. Vasquez-Grinnell shushed her charges. "Everyone will get a chance to hammer, but I do the drilling."

Next, she showed her pupils how to pick a strategic spot on the tree. Dr. Vasquez-Grinnell pointed to a row of tiny openings in the bark. "These are from yellow bellied sap suckers," she said. "See how they're all in a line? They are better at figuring out the best sap producing trees."

Drill in hand, Dr. Vasquez-Grinnell shared one last tip. "You don't want to drill near other holes. You need to give the tree time to heal. Eventually, the tree will grow out and fill it in."

Her drill – equipped with a 7/16-inch bit – buzzed as she inserted it into the bark. "You want to go two-and-a-half inches in," she said. "I have tape on my drill bit to know when to stop. You'll see it's already wet and dripping."

Sure enough, clear liquid poured from the tree's new hole. She plugged it with a metal tap.

"Let's whack our tap into place," she said. "Line up!"

One by one, her students took turns hammering the spout into place. A remote learner followed the action on an iPad held up by a fellow student. Then, another attached a silver bucket to collect the drippings. As the class watched and listened, more live science lessons followed.

"How many of you have had maple syrup?" asked Dr. Vasquez-Grinnell.

Many hands shot up in the air.

"Well, put your hands over and get some!"

Students dangled their fingers under the flow and tasted the liquid.

"It's like slightly sweetened water," said one.

"That's right, that's why you have to boil it," said Dr. Vasquez-Grinnell. "It's sugar water, and if you don't boil it, the Maillard reaction doesn't happen, and you don't get the amber color or the lovely flavor." The Maillard reaction is the chemical reaction that occurs with amino acids and sugars that gives syrup its browned color and distinctive taste.

"This afternoon, I'll pick up the bucket, and it will already be half-full," she said. "I'll take it home and boil it." The final product – delicious syrup.

Later in the semester, her students will conduct a lab to measure the sugar content from each run or yield. Ideally, tapping should happen in late winter or early spring so as not to take all the sap the tree needs to survive. "Once the buds burst the sap turns bitter," she said. These days, with warmer winter temperatures, Gill's tapping occurs earlier in the season.

And as per GSB longstanding tradition, the first syrup batch is reserved for Head of School Sid Rowell.