Essays - by Stephen G. Saupe, Ph.D.; Biology Department, College of St. Benedict/St. John's University, Collegeville, MN 56321;;


The Maple Syrup �Crystal Ball�

 Stephen G. Saupe, PhD.
Biology Department
College of St. Benedict/St. John�s University
Collegeville, MN  56321

 (article published in Sagatagan Seasons)

    As one of the co-leaders of the St. John�s maple syrup operation I am often asked questions like �Will you need help tomorrow?� or �Will this be a good year for maple syrup?� or �Will you be cooking sap next week?�  My typical and unsatisfying response is always the same � �I don�t know.�  Then I usually facetiously add, �My crystal ball is rather foggy today.�  I wish I could give a definitive answer to these questions, but the problem is that maple syrup making is affected by many, mostly unpredictable, variables. 

    Though we may not be able to accurately predict what our maple trees will do on a given day in the early spring, we do have one way of helping us to predict the future.  Nope, it�s not a crystal ball � it�s science.  We can foretell the future by analyzing the past records of maple syrup production.  Since Fr. Wendelin and his crew put out the first 150 taps in 1942 and collected 1440 gallons sap to make 45 gallons of syrup, the monks and syrup-makers at St. John�s have dutifully recorded the amount of sap collected and the syrup produced.  These records have been lovingly maintained on scrap lumber nailed to joists in the roof of the sugar shack.  Unfortunately, many of the early records were lost when the original sugar shack burned down in 1970.  However, we still have the records from 1972 onward when syruping was begun in the new shack in its present location on the east side of the radio tower field. 

    In an effort to preserve these data from potential destruction and to make them more widely available, one of my students (Erika Nunnink) and I have computerized our existing records.  We will eventually post these data in our maple website (  These scientific data are the next best thing to a crystal ball.  For example, we can peer into these data and answer questions like:

When will the maple trees at St. John�s start to produce sap? The average first day of sap collection is March 20th.  The earliest we ever collected sap was February 26th and latest date we first collected sap was April 3rd.

When is the maple season over at St. John�s?  On average, the last day that sap was collected is April 11th.  The earliest we ever closed up shop was March 30th and the latest date was April 22nd.

Will this year be an early season or a late season?  Hmm, my crystal ball is a little foggy.  However, we know that, on average, there are 22 days between the first and last days that we collect sap.  Thus, since this year (2005) we collected our first sap on March 24th, we predict that our last collecting day will be Tax Day, April 15th

How much syrup will St. John�s make this year?  It depends on the number of taps.  Historically speaking, each season St. John�s puts out 1309 taps and makes 268 gallons of syrup.  Or in other words, on average we make 0.82 quarts of syrup per tap.  Since we put out 600 taps this year, we hope to make at least 123 gallons of syrup.

How much sap does it take to make one gallon of syrup?  Since we collect an average of 10,754 gallons of sap each season and make 268 gallons of syrup, we will need to boil down 40.13 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.  The best year run we�ve had is 2002 when the sap/syrup ratio was 31.09 and our worst year was 2000 when the ratio was 45.3.

    As you can see, our data provide a glimpse into the future.  Scientific data analysis provides a crystal ball that can help us better understand the patterns that we see in the natural world.  Although our scientific crystal ball can be a little foggy at times, one thing is crystal clear � I predict with 100% certainty that we will welcome lots of visitors and volunteers to our operation and that we will all have a fantastic time making maple syrup in the Benedictine tradition. 


 © Copyright 01/12/2006 by SG Saupe