TAPPING BIGLEAF MAPLE FOR FUN!
Tapping bigleaf maple trees as a hobby is easy, fun, and sustainable with a few supplies and some training. If you are good at figuring things out with a little reading, watching online demonstration videos (e.g., search YouTube for bigleaf maple tapping), and a basic starter kit you can plunge right in. If you feel more comfortable learning through in-person instruction we highly recommend getting on the mailing list for the Oregon Maple Project who offer training opportunities for hobbyists. We also recommend keeping an eye out for bigleaf tapping workshops at extension and small farm and forest landowner events.
A bigleaf maple mixed in with other deciduous & conifer, a common scenario.
Bigleaf in fall, time to get ready for the winter tapping season.
Tapping a bigleaf with a 5/16" metal spile and hanging a 5 gallon bag to collect sap.
Sometimes sap starts dripping as soon as you drill the hole.
A single 5/16 tube running from a spile in the tree to a food grade 5 gallon bucket with a 5/16 hold drilled in the side.
A bucket hanging on a metal spile in a young bigleaf maple shoot.
Maple sap comes out the tree and looks and feels like water, though it is actually slightly more dense because it has sugar and other suspended solids.
Bigleaf maple sap evaporating on a kitchen stove in an open pan under a gentle boil. The sap turns amber as the liquid evaporates and the sugar caramelizes.
A few pointers for getting started
Getting started materials & equipment
The basic equipment you will need is a metal or plastic spile (tap), a small bucket or bag to hang on the spile or a section of tubing to connect from the spile to a bucket sitting on the ground, and a drill with the correct drill bit for the size of the spile (most common is 5/16), and some way to boil down your sap into syrup (e.g., kitchen stove, outdoor wood cooker with grate, propane burner for canning).
Choose trees that look healthy and that don't have cavities (hollow insides). For trees roughly 7 inches and larger, drill 2 inches deep. For trees 5 to 7 inches in diameter at breast height (DBH), drill 1.5 inches. You can use a sharpie or piece of painter's tape to mark the desired drill depth on your bit. Hold the drill steady and pull the chips out with a couple passes if needed. Try not to wiggle the drill and make the hole sloppy. Use a clean tool like a paper clip with a bend at the tip to get the hole completely free of shavings.
Sap flow can be irregular
Don't get discouraged on your first tapping try if you don't see any sap flow immediately and/or over the following days. No sap flow doesn't mean the tree won't produce sap, but it may mean your timing wasn't right. There is some trial and error, but that can be a fun challenge. As you will learn in the books, videos, and other resources, your odds for good sap flow are best when you tap after there has been freezing temperatures.
If your sap flow suddenly stops it likely means the tree is working on healing itself where you tapped. You can retap the same tree in a different spot, but we don't recommend retapping the same tree in a season more than 2 times, especially if the diameter is small like 6 to 12 inches.
70-80 gallons bigleaf sap = 1 gallon syrup
It takes around 70 to 80 gallons of bigleaf sap to make one gallon of syrup. So if you get a few gallons of sap, you may only get a 1/2 cup of syrup. The sugar content in the sap and all other maples is low and you have to evaporate a lot of water off to concentrate it to syrup. For hobby tapping you don't have to invest in expensive equipment like commercial evaporators, you can boil sap on your stove or through a slower method like an uncovered crock-pot over 24+ hours. If you use a crock pot you will likely need to finish your concentrated sap by boiling it in a heavy bottom pot to caramelize the sugars. The caramelized sugars are part of the flavor profile of maple syrup. As with jam or other sugary concentrates you have to watch it all times and take great care not to burn it. The sugar content of bigleaf sap ranges from 1 to 2.5 brix (brix = % sugar). For comparison, the sugar content of northeastern sugar maple (Acer saccharum) ranges from 1.5 to 3.5 brix. To become syrup you have to get between 66 & 68 brix, too little it will be watery and have a shorter shelf life, too much and it will start to form crystals. When you are starting out, don't worry too much about making perfect syrup, just practice evaporating and getting the sugars caramelized for flavor, it will be delicious whatever it looks like.
Lower brix (% sugar) sap use beyond syrup
Getting to the syrup stage takes a lot of time and patience and we encourage you to experiment with other uses of concentrated sap that is less than the 66 brix (percent of sugar) needed for syrup. When concentrating sap at boiling temperatures, at around 30 brix your sap will likely start to caramelize the sugars and go from clear to a brownish hue. Do small taste tests along the way and see what you think. You might want to put some of the concentrate in a food grade spray bottle and mist it on to some nuts or other foods. Try mixing it in a soft cheese or pouring it over vanilla ice cream. Your sap took a lot of time to collect and concentrate, so be creative in finding ways to stretch what you have that highlight the unique flavor of your concentrate.
Keep sap you've collected from going bad
Sap outside in warm temperatures above freezing will begin to sour after a day in your collection container (bucket, bag). Changing out collection containers and moving freshly collected sap to the fridge ASAP will extend the shelf life. You can also freeze it to give yourself a chance to accumulate enough to evaporate. Wash and sterilize your containers before putting into service and between collections. Star San is a non-toxic sanitizer commonly used by fermenters and approved by food safety agencies. It's inexpensive and available online or at your local craft brew supply. A 4oz bottle costs around $5 and will last you a season or more. It's helpful to save a glass gallon apple juice container to keep a batch of Star San mixed up and ready to go.
Reverse Osmosis for the Advanced Hobbyist
Reverse osmosis in the maple sap tapping world is the use of equipment to remove pure water from the sap. The purpose of this process is to create a concentrate that has a higher brix (sugar content) than sap out of the tree. Depending on the reverse osmosis setup you are using, 50% or more of water in the sap can be removed, which equates to a significant reduction in boiling time if you are making syrup. This poster from the RO Bucket people, a company that makes small RO systems for sugaring hobbyists, illustrates the RO maple sap process.
RESOURCES FOR THE HOBBYIST
"The Oregon Maple Project is a nonprofit organization that engages community members in local production of Bigleaf Maple syrup -- because nature is admirable, trees accomplish astonishing things, and together we can tap in for a taste."
"This how-to book by Gary and Katherine Backland covers all the basics on how to select and tap western maple trees along with the finer points on making good quality liquid gold (maple syrup). Its 96 pages are an easy read and are full of photos and illustrations."
Bigleaf Maple Tapping Basics (2014) (video)
This video covers "how to tap and make maple syrup from bigleaf maples trees on the West Coast. Covers tree selection, sap handling, evaporation, filtering, syrup finishing and bottling. Filmed near Ladysmith, British Columbia by the Backlund family, who have been tapping their trees for 20 years. The bigleaf maple is also known as broad left male and Oregon maple. The Latin name for this species is Acer macrophyllum."
Tapping Bigleaf Maple for Syrup Production (BC Canada website)
"This website is dedicated to helping you learn to tap Bigleaf maple trees for syrup production. Not every tree is a good producer, but most maples will give sap if tapped during the right season and the right weather conditions. Top production is normally during January and February. The water table needs to be high. A few days of below freezing temperatures followed by a warming trend and a sunny day gives ideal tapping...Given ideal conditions single trees have been known to produce up to 200 litres of sap over one week."