WILLIAMSTOWN -- A tiny trickle of sap started flowing from a maple tree in Hopkins Memorial Forest just as soon as Williams College senior Ben Kuelthan pulled the bit of a hand drill from its bark on Saturday.
Seconds later, Kuelthan finished hammering a metal spout into the young tree and fastened a five-gallon metal bucket just underneath it -- finishing his tree-tapping demonstration for a small crowd attending MapleFest at the college-run forest.
"We still tap the trees the old-fashioned way," he said. "We have 130 buckets, between what we have in the forest and along Northwest Hill Road. We collect the sap from the buckets every couple of days. Then it's boiled down into syrup in our wood-fired evaporator."
While the art of collecting sap in buckets has become almost obsolete, at least for most sugar bushes in the area, John Koepp, who runs the weekend sugar house tours at Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock, says the new clear-tube collection systems and oil-fired evaporators are much more efficient than the methods he grew up with as a young boy in Lebanon Springs, N.Y.
"The equipment's much better and everything's made of stainless steel," Koepp, now in his 70s, said. "It's all mechanized and more accurate. Back when I was a boy, we did things by guessing. We didn't have hydrometers to check the density.
"We also didn't have filtering systems like today -- we filtered the syrup through cheese cloth. It didn't filter out the sugar sand either -- seeing that collect at the bottom of a mason jar of syrup was a real turnoff."
In a waiting area just outside the sugar house, Koepp's wife, Terri Ann, was busy offering samples of maple syrup and explaining the difference in syrup grades to a small audience.
"There are four seasons in every maple syrup season," she said, holding up a jar with a light amber liquid inside. "The first of the seasons gives us a light amber, which is used to make the maple candy. Next comes ‘middle of the road Millie,' sweet maple taste. It has the sweetness and the maple taste. When I get later into the season, I still have ‘Grade A' but I have dark amber and a nice rich flavor. When I get to the end of the season, mother nature inverts the most sugar into the flavor. This they call ‘Grade B,' but it's a misnomer. We always think second class when we hear ‘Grade B' but that's not so. It has the most intense wonderful maple flavor. You have to taste the syrups to know which one you like best."
The Koepps keep busy in the sugar house on the weekends, while their longtime friends, the Leab Family, who own Ioka Valley, are busy working in the sugar bush or serving up pancakes and French toast in the Calf-A.
Rob Leab and his wife, Melissa, the third-generation to run the farm, added the maple syrup business in 1993.
"We started out with 13 taps, now we have 9,000," Rob said Saturday during a tour arranged by Wild Oats Market. "Last year we ended around March 17, which is the earliest we've ever ended. We did OK. I'm hoping for a good season this year, but every year is different."
Three weeks into the season, he's already boiled sap four times -- an average season usually taps out at 20 ‘boils.'
"The length of a season really depends on the weather," Leab said. "As long as the sap is flowing, we're in season."
Weather conditions have to be just right for sap to flow -- cold nights and warm days, he said.
"When the nights are cold, the sap freezes and pressure builds up behind it," Pete Phelps of Sweet Brook Farm in Williamstown, said. "When the trees warm up, the pressure releases and the sap flows. It's similar to a bottle of soda. You won't get a run without the freeze and thaw."
But even in bad years, modern technology can make a difference in the sap collected.
"If you have a vacuum system, then you always have low pressure," Phelps said. "You'll always have some type of a run. In good years, the vacuum system typically increases your yield."
Phelps and his wife, Beth, began making syrup four years ago and have 4,350 taps in their sugar bush.
"Last year was a below average season," he said. "We started off slow this year, but we should have some good weather over the next couple of weeks. I'd say that we're looking at a more normal season this year."