Northwest Maple Syrup Industry Shows Promise

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ACME, Wash. — Most of the maple syrup in the world is produced in the Northeastern U.S. and Canada where sugar maple trees are the dominant source. However, Neil McLeod is on an adventurous mission to make syrup from the dominant maple tree in the state of Washington; the bigleaf maple.

For the past five years McLeod has been making and selling small batches of maple syrup from bigleaf maple sap on a farm in the small town of Acme in Whatcom County.

Regarding the bigleaf maple tree "It's hard to kill," McLeod says "A great tree. Perfect weed. It makes good syrup."

“I think I’ve taken it from being impossible to where you can do it," Mr. McLeod said. “Not just at a hobby level. I’ve proven it can be done at a commercial level.”

What seemed as impossible ten years ago, has become reality and today; McLeod’s Bigleaf Maple Syrup Company will produce hundreds of gallons of bigleaf maple syrup that sells for around $3.50 an ounce and is in high demand.

“We’re selling out as fast as we can make it. It doesn’t stay on the shelf any time at all,” Neil said. "You will be able to find it in a store near you soon, OK,".

When McLeod was asked how he learned to make syrup from bigleaf maple sap, he replied, “YouTube, books and a lot of mistakes along the way.”

Making syrup in Washington is very dissimilar how maple producers in the Northeast make syrup since the tree sap flows are longer and bigleaf maple sap has about 50% the amount of sugar that sugar maples do.

Next to raw honey, maple syrup is the most popular natural sweetener in North America and its making precedes European colonization. Aboriginal peoples from the northeastern part of North America were the first to learn how to produce maple syrup and maple sugar. Archaeological evidence and indigenous oral traditions say that organic raw maple tree sap was being turned into syrup long before Europeans arrived. European settlers implemented the practice and advanced production methods.  

Devin Day is Neil’s son and together, they have tapped around 2,500 maple trees in numerous places in Whatcom County. The taps are food-grade plastic lines that bring the sap to outdoor holding tanks by the sap house.

"You could go find a very pristine piece of property full of maples, tap it and have your house paid off in just a few years," Day says. "That's insane. Nobody even realizes that."

The sap then goes through a reverse osmosis machine that pulls the water out, which concentrates the sap so it does not have to boil as long since it takes around 120 gallons of bigleaf maple sap to make one gallon of syrup. 

After hours of boiling, the syrup reduces to 66.5% sugar, then it is filtered and bottled.

Neil is known as the granddaddy of the bigleaf maple syrup crusade and he was noticed by researchers at the University of Washington which led to USDA grant to study the feasibility of bigleaf maple syrup production in Washington state.

According to Kevin McFarland a consulting arborist from Olympia "[Bigleaf maple] contributes a great deal to the forest ecology within its range," McFarland says. "In terms of wildlife habitat, the flowers, which emerge very early in the spring, provide a considerable amount of food for insects and birds. They are very good with holding soil, preventing erosion. And also, for humans, beekeepers rely on the trees for their flowers for providing honey."

They are a very special tree," McFarland added. "The height of the tree, the width of the canopy, the structure of the tree, the scaffolding of the tree. It's almost the perfect shade tree."

Researcher Ken Wheiler said, “We’re trying to collect enough information about how sap flows, when it flows, and how to take care of it and how to produce syrup that other landowners in the state can use that data to make decisions.”

Wheiler said the industry has a number of environmental benefits “This is a way for a landowner to keep their forests as forests,” he added.

“I’d love to replant all the natural rainforest that used to be here, because you can plant, and literally within that first decade be generating revenue in a forest that’s growing that can produce for over a hundred years,” said Day.

“It’s an exciting thought that you can profit from agro-forestry in a different way than cutting the forest down,” Wheiler said. “Out of the millions of gallons that are there to be collected in a couple different counties, we’re not even scratching the surface.” 

Neil McLeod has created a market for Northwest bigleaf maple syrup. 

Brady Williams is the executive chef of a famous restaurant Canlis that overlooks Lake Union and he recently won the James Beard Award for best chef in the Northwest.

"Fine dining doesn't necessarily mean luxury ingredients or expensive stuff," Chef Williams says. "You just want to serve the most-considered ingredients."

"We want to support local farms and artisans as much as possible," Williams added. "When I taste this, I taste the terroir from the Skagit Valley or northern Washington. To me, it tastes how it feels up there."

McLeod said, “I hope it becomes an industry. You know, maybe 20 years from now they'll put a big bronze statue of me out in the woods. That’s what I’m aiming at.”

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