At Maple Fest, visitors get into the thick of things

Eliza Cass, 5, of Lenox, gets a peek inside one of the tap buckets Saturday, during Maple Fest at Hopkins Memorial Forest in Williamstown. Holding the bucket open is her mother, Kristine, while Eliza is held by her grandfather, David Cass.

WILLIAMSTOWN — During a visit to the Campbell Coop sugarhouse at Hopkins Memorial Forest on Saturday afternoon, Callie Jennings lifted her 4-year-old son, Charlie, so he could get a better look at maple tree sap boiling into syrup.

Jennings, originally from the Seattle area, moved to Lanesborough a few years ago. After learning about the process of making syrup, she set up an amateur system at her home, with nine taps.

"I was like, `Wait, it really is just boiling water out of sap?'" Jennings recalled. "Why wouldn't we try it?"

On Saturday, Williams College hosted its annual Maple Fest, where guests came to the forest to sample syrup on pancakes and, in New England tradition, sugar on snow.

While Jennings makes about 2 gallons of syrup a year at home, Williams College produces an average of 30, according to Tom Merrill, who was working in the sugar shack.

The process starts at the maple tree.

As light snow fell in the forest, Williams College student Abe Steinberger helped a young girl hammer a tap into a tree and affix a metal bucket underneath.

A clear, waterlike sap immediately began flowing from the tap.

The sap, which has very little taste at first, is about 2 percent sugar when it leaves the tree, but after boiling it down, the syrup is about 60 percent sugar, according to Alec Wyatt, another Williams College student who works in the forest.

Syrup season typically kicks off around this time of year, but this year, it came a bit sooner, Wyatt said.

One day last week, trees in Hopkins Memorial Forest produced about 300 gallons of sap. Normally, the forest produces slightly less than 200 gallons a day, he said.

When Wyatt was very young, his family would eat artificial syrup from the grocery store, but one year, his aunt and uncle sent a bottle of real maple syrup from their home in Wisconsin.

"I never went back," Wyatt said.

After the sap is collected, it is boiled at about 219 degrees Fahrenheit, until the water evaporates, Merrill explained while working in the sugar shack.

"It comes down to just boiling away the water," Merrill said as guests observed the process.

It takes about 40 to 50 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, he said.

But the process of making the sugary treat hasn't always been as efficient as it is today, according to 20-year-old Anna Lietman, who demonstrated the earliest-known method of making syrup.

Native Americans once harvested the syrup by putting large stones over a heat source and then moving them into a hollowed-out log.

The heat from the stones would turn the sap to syrup, she explained, adding that it's impressive that people were ever able to figure out how to turn the colorless liquid in the tree into something more.

"It looks like water, tastes like water, smells like water," Lietman said. "It isn't until you boil it that it gets sugary."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.