Backyard Maple Syrup: Permaculture at Home.
Here in the Pacific Northwest we don’t have the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) like Eastern North America, and you may be inclined to believe we can’t make maple syrup without them. Be inclined no longer. We have the Big Leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) in abundance, a species which can be used to make delicious maple syrup. Now, it won’t have the same sugar content as what you are accustomed to from the sugar maple, and that is quite alright by me. It is still sweet and the flavor profile is more complex. Although you can produce maple syrup from other species like alder, birch, and black walnut here, my favorite is the Big Leaf maple. So, let’s show you how to do it too.
Overall, it’s not an easy thing to do, and the amount of sap required to produce a paltry amount of syrup is staggering: 40:1. But, it’s as fun and rewarding as playing in the woods and the kitchen can be. And if it’s meanwhile snowing like it did last year on my tapping excursions, you may get the wonderful feeling that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
A word about equipment: Do not buy plastic spiles because they don’t take much abuse before fracturing. I quickly upgraded to stainless steel after my plastic meltdown in the woods. Otherwise, get a rubber mallet to seat the spile in the drain hole.
Here is the PNW, I start testing for sap flow in late January; but, it’s really weather dependent just like the bloom schedule of fruit trees. I drill a small hole in a candidate specimen and check for a sap drip. If there is no yield, I plug the test hole with organic material and move on. But, don’t forget to come back to it later in the season and try again.
Tapping and Collecting
Once you find sap flow, drill a 1" to 2" deep, 3/4" diameter hole in your specimen at least two feet off the ground. Close your eyes and blow out any “sawdust” then press or tap in the spile with the mallet, leaving a “collection space” in the back of the hole. Depending on your collection strategy, you’ll hang a bucket or run a drip line into a bucket from the spile. It’s your choice. Once you’re confident it’s draining, move on to the next specimen. The amount of flow you are measuring/observing will determine when you come back to check on the volume in the bucket. A “gusher” can yield a gallon a day. Don’t tap a tree less than 12” diameter, and don’t put too many tap holes in a single tree. These can be inoculation points for disease.
If you don’t have a “sugar house” you can use your kitchen for “small” amounts of sap. Put the sap in a large pot and condense it by steaming the fluid at about 170°F. You don't want the sap to boil, just kinda bubble a little. If you can moderate the heat, use your wood burning stove to save electricity. We often cook on the stove, and syrup reduction can be done here too. Take note: you’ll tsunami your house with humidity as it can take up to a full day to reduce the sap down to the right consistency. I use a wooden spoon to test the syrup. When it acts like syrup rolling off the spoon, it’s ready for cooling and jarring.
Let us know how it went!