Hobbyist Getting Started FAQ
This FAQ is a simple reference. You will want to read more detailed books and resources like those recommended on the "Hobbyist Resources" page of this hobbyist section of the Oregon Tree Tappers website. You may also want to look at the commercial resources as their are many valuable guides listed, especially if you think you might scale up to commercial someday.
What species is bigleaf maple?
Bigleaf maple is Acer macrophyllum and it is native to the North American west coast, from northern California to British Columbia, and primarily west of the Cascade Mountains. For biological-ecological information, see the the USDA Plants Database. Additional information can be found in publications and websites under the Hobby & Commercial tabs of this website.
Can you harm bigleaf maples by tapping them?
Anytime you drill a hole in a tree you are creating a wound and the tree will begin a healing process just like other living organisms. We haven't found research studies, or heard from practitioners, that tapping bigleaf leads to tree mortality or increases the potential for mortality. A recent study by van den berg et al. published in the June 2021 issue of Maple Digest advises against retapping the same hole to rejuvenate sap flow that has tapered off. Thus, it may be better for the health of the tree to tap a new hole than to expand existing holes. However, that where that may be true for sugar maple we are not sure if it true for the much faster growing (i.e., putting on new sap wood) bigleaf maple. We are experimenting with 19/64" bits and the slightly larger 5/16" bit to get a better understanding of these differences between species.
When a bigleaf is cut off at the base for firewood or lumber it sends up new shoots. Bigleaf is a tenacious tree that is difficult to eradicate for those that try to do so.
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).
Also visit the "Commercial" section of this website for training and supplier resources. Most equipment suppliers offer low-cost starter kits for eastern sugar maple, but those kits work for bigleaf maple also. Before you buy, search the Internet for Maple Tapping Kit and check out some of the different type kits and descriptions to see if one feels right for you.
Choose trees that look healthy and that don't have cavities (hollow insides). For trees 5 to 7 inches in diameter at breast height (DBH), drill 1.5 inches. For trees roughly 7 to 12 inches drill 2 inches deep, for trees 12 inches and larger drill 2 to 2.5" deep. 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.
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.
I tapped a tree, why isn't my sap flowing?
Although the science of bigleaf maple sap flow is limited, based on conversations with tappers and scholars below are just a few of the variables we all can be trying to observe to see how they impact sap flow:
The ground has low moisture content because of a change in soil moisture conditions;
No or limited freezing temperatures to draw up moisture into the tree from the roots/ground;
Trees are internally frozen or too cold (even when external temperatures are above freezing), thus negative pressure is preventing the release of sap to a tap (see Perkins et al. 2001 Maple News Pg. 6 for a detailed discussion);
The tree vigor has declined and/or the tree is dying.
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.
How much bigleaf sap does it take to make syrup?
The sap to syrup ratio is roughly 80 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. If that sounds like a lot of sap to make a small amount of syrup you are right, it is. Bigleaf sap has less sugar content coming out of the tree than sugar maples, but sugar maples also take a lot of sap to make syrup, 40-60 gallons. The amount of sap needed is a part of what makes maple syrup and other maple products extra special, i.e., the effort it takes to create a memorable, unique food. Other tree syrups from species like birch and walnut take even more effort because of their low sugar content and generally lower yields of sap. Though sugar maple may produce more sap, and the terrain can be less brushy to work in (though colder), there is a huge abundance of bigleaf (without hardly any active management to increase their population), and the trees can be much larger than sugar maple.
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. To become syrup your brix should be as close to 66.8 as you can get, that's the most shelf stable density of sugar. Too little it will be watery and have a shorter shelf life, too much and it will start to form sugar crystals (which is good if you are making maple cream!). 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.
One investment even a hobby level producer should consider is a small reverse osmosis (R.O). The R.O. removes water efficiently, making it so you have less water to boil off. See the R.O. section in this FAQ for more information.
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.
Can you make money tapping bigleaf for food products?
Bigleaf maple tapping is currently done primarily by hobbyists but there is an emerging industry and a lot of commercial opportunity. As consumer awareness and demand for bigleaf leaf syrup and other products grows, so will opportunities for sap collectors and processors. It takes a lot of sap to produce a product like maple sap, so commercial opportunities favor producers with access to large numbers of trees. There is an equipment cost as well. It's possible to collect quite a lot of sap with simple setups like tapped trees going into buckets and then evaporating small batches over a wood fire or propane stove. However, other than hobby or very small commercial production, vacuum pumps, reverse osmosis machines, and other equipment needed to produce syrup for market can get expensive. Our suggestion is to start small and get a feel for how everything works. It won't take long for you to start seeing what the economic potential is for your particular situation.