Most of us have spent a lifetime enjoying maple syrup—poured over pancakes, pooled beneath strips of crispy bacon—but we don’t understand much about it here in the Pacific Northwest. Isn’t the breakfast-table staple a product of East Coast sugar maples, processed in snow-covered Vermont sugar shacks, then trucked to our Seattle grocery shelves?
It doesn’t have to be. On a farm in Acme (a small town just southeast of Bellingham), Devin Day and his stepdad, Neil McLeod, are tapping big-leaf maple trees—prolific in the Pacific Northwest, but long considered only suitable for firewood—for maple syrup. Aside from some First Nations tribes on Vancouver Island, their farm, where they also raise rabbits, is the only commercial purveyor of this special elixir, sold under the label Neil’s Big Leaf Maple Syrup to restaurants, bars and breweries throughout western Washington. And they’re hoping to get other local farms on board.
The sap travels through these tubes to holding tanks. This year, they’ve tripled the number of trees tapped to total 1,200
Mcleod took up syrup making as a hobby on Day’s 200-acre Valley Rabbits farm about six years ago. Initially, he tapped the trees the old-fashioned way, with a spile (a small spigot that’s inserted into the tree), and then cooked the sap down in stainless steel pans over a fire. He decided to make a go of it commercially after reading The Sugarmaker’s Companion, a guide to small- and large-scale commercial syrup production, by Michael Farrell. McLeod even reached out to Farrell for advice: “He told me everything I was doing wrong.” Farrell advised him on ways to improve, which he dutifully followed. “[After that,] I sent him a bottle. He said I’d made a really fine syrup I should be proud of.”
In 2017, McLeod invested in a proper maple sugaring setup, swapping out the spiles for miles of plastic tubing and a vacuum that sucks the sap from the tree. Still, with all these efficiencies in place, sap only flows under the right conditions, commonly believed to be cold nights and warmer days, since the sap gets sucked into the tree canopy when temperatures drop below freezing and flows back to the trunk as it warms. “I’ve spent my whole life watching the weather,” McLeod says, referring to the years he spent as a fisherman in Alaska. Now is no different. He says the largest-producing runs usually happen between late December and early January—by February, as the days stay warmer longer, the production starts slowing down.
Maple sap is very different from the eventual amber-colored product we know as maple syrup. Fresh from the tree, it runs clear and thin, more like coconut water than pine resin. It’s delicately sweet—about 2 percent sugar—and refreshing. Because it’s high in phytonutrients, minerals and antioxidants, it’s also rumored to be powerfully healthful.
MIX MASTER: Inside the sugar shack, a Willy Wonka-like contraption uses reverse osmosis to kickstart the cooking process, eliminating the water from the sap and cutting down on the time it takes to boil into syrup. Neil McLeod closely monitors every step, adding organic safflower oil in small doses to keep the syrup from bubbling over.
It takes about 60 gallons of this sap to make 1 gallon of big-leaf maple syrup (slightly more than if you were tapping sugar maples). When finished, syrup has to hover at about 66 percent sugar—at a lower percentage, it will spoil in the bottle, and at a higher percentage, it will crystallize.
Although producing syrup is the main goal of this process, there’s much more that can be done with the sap. When Day, whose rabbits are sold to restaurants ranging from Canlis in Seattle to the Chrysalis Inn in Bellingham, started taking around syrup samples, he found that the flavor speaks for itself: subtler than traditional Vermont maple syrup, rich with vanilla and caramel undertones. There has also been interest in products beyond the traditional syrup. Bartenders and chefs love a simple syrup cooked to 26 percent sugar for mixing into cocktails or spinning into sorbet. At 15 percent, the simple syrup can be run through a soda stream for an all-natural take on a cream soda. Breweries, too, have expressed interest in this lower sugar syrup, for making a maple ale.
Bottling the syrup
The demand for McLeod’s syrups has increased every year, and though Day says he’s still got maple groves that can be tapped, the two are hoping that this project becomes something bigger. Last year, McLeod was able to process 1,500 gallons of sap each night during the run; this year, he’s hoping to get 4,000 gallons each night. Because big-leaf maples are ubiquitous in the area, McLeod would like to see other small, organic farms that have these trees on their properties make money off them. He explains that this native, sustainable crop needs no spray or irrigation; the trees regenerate the soil and cool the water. If farmers planted big-leaf maples now, those trees could be tapped for sap in just five years.
In the meantime, McLeod is happy to keep cooking; he’s hoping to make enough syrup to expand beyond his restaurant and bar sales to farmers’ markets and specialty grocers. Except for Michael Farrell, he says, “I probably know more about big-leaf maples...than anybody else.”