If you don't know anything about bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) tapping but you have access to a lot of bigleaf maple trees and thank you might be interested in commercial possibilities, reading through this website will give you a basic foundation.

Commercial bigleaf maple sap production for food products is an emerging industry with lots of promise. The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service Acer Access and Development Program has invested in university research programs and business entrepreneurs are emerging to put ideas into action.

Fortunately, while bigleaf has a few unique variables to consider in commercial production, most of the procurement and processing methods and materials are the same as the long established eastern U.S. and Canadian sugar maple industry. Studying their research, watching practitioner videos, and reaching out to suppliers are steps you can take to learn more about commercial production opportunities and challenges. You will see all scales of commercial sugar maple (Acer saccharum) syrup production, from small producers supplying local farmer markets to large companies supplying wholesale and retail markets.

A few key points to start you off:

How much sap can a bigleaf maple tree produce?

The amount of sap a tree can produce and be captured during a season varies depending on many variables that are not fully understood yet in the industry. As a ballpark expect individual stems (trunks) 6 to 24 inches in size without cavities to produce from 1 to 6 gallons a winter. How many frost events, how well you tap, and how often you retap are some of the many variables to become familiar with.

How many gallons of bigleaf sap does it take to produce a gallon of syrup?

It takes 60 to 80 gallons of sap to produce a gallon of syrup so depending on what level of market you are trying to reach will influence how much sap and how many trees you need in your system.

How many trees do I need?

If your goal is to sell a few gallons of syrup in small gift bottles at a farmers market, roadside stand, or other small venue then 25 to 50 trees might suffice. If your goal is to sell larger quantities such as with online retail or regional specialty grocers, then you will probably need several hundred, if not thousands of trees to tap to get a dependable supply.

Most commercial producers use a tubing system that connects tapped trees on a single line that drains into a tank, and sometimes directly into the facility where you are evaporating (e.g., a "sugar shack"). For a small to medium size commercial operation that sells hundreds of gallons of syrup a season you are likely going to need to tap 500 or more trees a season. To supply a retail outlet like a grocery chain expect to tap 1,000s of trees and make significant investments in procurement, processing, and equipment.

Do commercial producers use buckets, bags, or tubing systems?

Tapping sap is done using hanging bags, hanging buckets or tubes to buckets on the ground, or with vacuum tubing systems using natural gravity or connected to vacuum pumps. In the Pacific Northwest some small commercial producers are using bucket systems, but the largest producers are using commercial vacuum tubing systems designed specifically for maple sap. While it is possible to build your own relatively low-cost pumping system with pumps like the Sureflo 4008, as you scale up in size you will likely find that the maple equipment industry has well thought out, time-tested, food safety compliant equipment that will ultimately make your efforts more productive. An example of a good small to medium-size commercial vacuum pump is the Bosworth Guzzler. Large supply companies listed on the "Equipment Suppliers" page have sales agents that can help you plan our your equipment needs.

What does it cost to get into commercial production?

You can get into small commercial production for under $1,000, especially if you already own useful materials like food grade buckets, freezers, a cordless drill, and other tools. However, costs can add up, especially as you scale up. For example, if you want to tap 250 trees you will need 250 spiles. Spiles currently come from the eastern sugar maple industry and average around 30 cents a piece give or take depending on the quality and features (e.g., check valves built in). If you are doing a tubing system you will need barbed tees to connect lines coming from taps to each other and to the central mainline. Tees average around 30 cents a piece. You will need tubing for drop-lines, lateral lines, and main lines. If you buy early in the season you can get a 1,000' role of 3/16" UV protected tubing for around $35, but you may have to pay shipping. You will likely want one of the helpful specialty tools for attaching spiles and tees to tubing, these can cost over $100. As you scale up costs will of course increase. A cost that will quickly become apparent is dealing with large quantities of sap. Powerful reverse osmosis machines can eliminate a lot of water from the sap, meaning more fuel saved in evaporation. If you don't evaporate sap right away you will have to have a plan to store the raw sap or concentrate after running it through a reverse osmosis machine. For commercial production this scenario likely means you will need a large walk-in freezer which comes with an electricity cost to factor in. Most commercial producers try to evaporate sap as it comes in to the sugar shack/processing area, maintaining a steady flow of sap during a run period and steady evaporation till the sap is gone. Under this scenario you may be operating from early in the morning till late at night to get the job done.

Do I have to replace materials every season?

The good news is that a lot of the specialty equipment and materials can last you years if you take care of it, thus giving you a chance to recoup your investment. If you are thinking of exploring commercial possibilities make your first year a fun, low-cost, getting familiar year. That will help you immeasurably in estimating the time and costs and your potential profitability. Bigleaf maple sap food products is an underdeveloped industry with a lot of potential, but expect to spend a few years before seeing any profits.

Is syrup the only commercial product I can produce?

While syrup is an obvious market, value-added products for bigleaf maple sap are practically non existent at this time. Flavored waters, fermented beverages and foods, and candies are just a few examples of what could be developed. Other angles include agritourism and riparian conservation incentives.


Below you find a small selection of images as a quick overview of some commercial bigleaf tapping. You will find more in-depth resources on the Education and Equipment Supplier's pages so be sure to go through those pages as well.

A tube attached to a 3/16" barb on a 5/16" nylon spile. Tubing systems are used for connecting many trees (often 100s, even 1,000s) in a single line.

A cordless drill is used to drill a hole for a spile. The drill bit has a parabolic/wide flute that helps lifts wood chips out of the hole and out of your tubing system which can get clogged where tubing connects to spiles and tees.

Hammering in a spile once a tap hole is drilled.

This custom handtool from the sugar maple industry is used to connect tubing to a barbed tee and to tees that join droplines. Since you are working in winter cold, the tubing can be hard to stretch on to the barb, but the tool makes it easy.

A close-up of a tee that connects 3/16" tubing. The tees are durable and can be claned and resused for one or more seasons.

3/16" droplines are being connected to each other through 3/16" tees using the handtool. Some tubing systems use a single size tubing throughout the run, others use combinations of 3/16", 5/16", 3/4" and even larger, depending on the size of the "sugarbush".

This special tool is called a punch and can drill a precise hole in a mainline to hold a "saddle" for connecting a smaller drop or lateral line to a mainline in this case, 5/16" to 3/4". This punch is also good at keeping plastic from dropping into the mainline.

Wood chips caught in a tee. This happens when the hole is not cleaned properly of wood chips after drilling it for a spile.

Stump sprouts can be tapped just like single trunks. How much they produce in comparison to single large trunks is research being done. Intentional cutting a tree to create sprouts is called coppicing.

This is an example of a vacuum pump. The vacuum pump creates a negative pressure on the tubing system, drawing sap through it. This is a Bosworth diaphram pump that does not require a releaser. This model can service 400 taps and costs around $850.

This is a 55 gallon let tank collecting sap via natural gravity (i.e., no vacuum pump) from 75 taps. During a warm day following a below 32F night the tank can fill with sap within a day. A medium size commercial producer may collect over a 1,000 gallons of sap a day from their vacuum lines.

Joe McGilvra getting his evaporator ready pan ready.