Bigleaf maple trees, abundant in Western Washington, may become known for something new — bigleaf maple syrup.
Kevin Zobrist, a professor in the Washington State University Extension forestry program, said there is growing interest in bigleaf maple syrup production.
The extension hosted a workshop Nov. 9 in Concrete on how to tap trees and make maple syrup, the first workshop of its kind hosted by the extension. Thirty-two people attended.
“There’s a longstanding myth that West Coast maples aren’t any good for syrup,” Zobrist said. “The bigleaf maple can hold its own against the sugar maple from the East Coast. Bigleaf maple syrup is an exquisite syrup that is rich and buttery with a hint of vanilla.”
Bigleaf maple syrup could be a lucrative industry. Zorbist said the syrup can sell for $300 a gallon.
“It represents a great opportunity for small-forest landowners to generate income from nontimber forest products, and a way to get Washington on the map with another great food product,” he said.
Al Craney, a former forester with the Skagit Conservation District who assisted with the Nov. 9 workshop, said one company — Neil’s Bigleaf Maple Syrup in Acme, which is north of Sedro-Woolley — has started commercial production of bigleaf maple syrup in Washington.
“Small landowners are doing it as a hobby, but how do we expand it into a commercial operation?” he said.
That’s the goal of a $500,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant awarded in September to a professor from the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.
“This project is the first of its kind funded in this part of the country,” said Indroneil Ganguly, associate professor at the University of Washington.
He said as part of the three-year project he plans to set up four research sites in Western Washington, and hold more bigleaf maple syrup workshops.
“We’ll see about the right conditions, right age of trees and how best to do it,” he said. “How to make it viable and eat it too.”
A science experiment
On private forestland northeast of Lyman on Nov. 9, students in the workshop practiced tapping trees and collecting their sap under towering bigleaf maples.
They drilled holes up to two inches into the trees’ trunks and inserted plastic spouts, called spiles, and attached plastic tubing to carry the sap to containers.
“Think of it as a big science experiment on your property,” Zobrist told students.
Ryan Jepperson, who hosted the students on his property, said the window to collect sap is November through March, and requires specific weather conditions.
“There’s really only a week or two at the beginning and end of the season — sub-freezing nighttime temperatures and above-freezing, sunny daytime temperatures,” he said. “I think it’s the fluctuation that causes the sap to flow.”
Zobrist said there is still a lot to learn.
“Some trees gush and produce a lot of sap through the whole season and with others you don’t get anything,” he said. “We’re trying to learn the patterns — why do trees produce and some don’t, how it relates to soil types, growing conditions and weather.”
Trees are tapped once per season, and the tap is removed in the spring to allow the hole in the trunk to heal over, according to an article on bigleaf maple syrup from the Washington State University Extension’s forestry program. It takes 30 to 40 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of maple syrup.
From sap to syrup
The next step is to boil the sap, which concentrates the sugar content, evaporates the water and kills any bacteria.
The sap is first boiled in a stainless steel pan over a wood or propane stove outside until its sugar content is 60%, according to the extension article. The syrup is then finished inside on a stove to a target of 63% sugar content.
The syrup is then filtered and and bottled.
Jepperson said he started making syrup from bigleaf maple trees on his property about 10 years ago, and got into it out of curiosity. He said he produces about a pint a year and likes to savor it by drizzling it over vanilla ice cream instead of drenching pancakes or waffles with it.
Melinda Ulle of Sultan said she signed up for the workshop when she learned that making bigleaf maple syrup was possible.
“I was all over it,” she said. “Bigleaf maples are everywhere.”
She said to start she wants to make syrup for her family, but could see doing it later on a small, commercial scale.
“Depending on how much work it is, it could be a cottage industry,” she said.
Zobrist said those interested could start growing bigleaf maples on their properties, if they don’t have them already.
“(Bigleaf maple) doesn’t get credit for the versatile species it is,” he said. “It provides for wildlife habitat, and the potential for a special forest product. If you have trees, tap and see what happens.”