In the close quarters of a white wooden cabin at Bath's Hale Farm and Village (2686 Oak Hill Rd., 330-666-3711, wrhs.org), where sap is turned into syrup, flames crackle from a boiler. Steam evoked by the separation of water from sap's natural sugar warms the room. It's a sharp contrast to the freshly laid snow outdoors and the perpetually frigid climate equated with maple sugaring's fleeting February to early March harvest.
Maple sugaring — collecting and boiling tree sap to create pure maple syrup — is a ritualistic process forged by Native Americans. In fact, little has changed from the routine of the Hale family itself, who founded the farm in 1825, long before it became the property of the Western Reserve Historical Society. Once used for barter and trade, maple products have now evolved into a $5-million annual commodity in Ohio.
Requiring a precise, delicate balance of day-and-night temperatures, maple syrup manufacture has long been prevalent in the northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada. For sap to emerge from trees, temperatures must settle near 45 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and drop below freezing at night.
"The challenge, of course, is just waiting on everything to line up: for the weather to be right and the tree to be ready," says Hale site manager Jason Klein. "It's something you have no control over. When it's ready, it's ready, and you have to be ready to go yourself."
Approaching the few short weeks when conditions are favorable, farmers size up the maple trees for health. At Hale Farm, that means checking 30 to 40 trees each year. Those in good standing are treated to 2-inch insertions, made with a three-eighths-inch drill bit angled slightly upward. The cavities create room to pound in spiles, the metals taps that funnel sap from the trees into buckets.
As the temperature coaxes the first flow of sap, the clock begins ticking.
"When the sap begins flowing, it's time to get busy," says Klein.
From that moment, the farm's daily cycle becomes synched to the maples. Farmers rise in the morning to gather sap that has collected overnight and go back out once more in the late afternoon. Trees produce two to three gallons of sap daily, totalling several hundred gallons over the run.
Once this begins, farmers create a fire in a metal-encased evaporator tank, which boils the water from the sap until the sugar is highly concentrated. Throughout the day, the fire is continuously stoked to heat the sap for hours until its sugar content grows from around 2 percent to 67 percent. At that point, it becomes syrup. Heated even further, it becomes crystallized candy as it approaches 85 percent.
Because so much evaporation must occur, it takes 40 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup. Hale's hundreds of gallons of sap ultimately yield about six sweet gallons of syrup each year, which will be served at the annual Maple Sugar Festival, March 14, 15, 21, 22.
While the process can be ceremonial in its strict alignment of temperatures, the act of conversion is equally antiquated. The evaporator may use some modern equipment, but its roots are ancient, tracing back to Native Americans who made maple syrup as a way to procure sugar.
"Before they had a metal evaporator, they used wood bowls carved out of trees and wooden buckets," Klein explains. "They would heat up rocks in the fire and then into the wooden buckets to evaporate the water off. Then, they would reheat the rocks and put them back in the water and continue that process all day long. It took months longer to make sugar."
As winter comes to a close, Mother Nature's own ebb and flow has become a changing season's rite of passage, Klein says.
"It's the sign that spring has finally almost arrived."