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News / Northwest

Northwest maple syrup? University of Washington testing local bigleaf maples for sweet industry

The Columbian
Published: May 11, 2020, 6:02am

EATONVILLE, PIERCE COUNTY — Neon lines stretch across a forest thick with sword ferns, zigzagging across the landscape at about waist level.

The blue and green tubes, which sometimes flow with liquid, weave around maple trees and traverse the hillside, interconnected, like a tiny highway system. The bright colors contrast with the usual earth tones found in these forested foothills of Mount Rainier.

“It’s either forest graffiti, or it’s an art project,” said Greg Ettl, a University of Washington forest ecologist.

Sap drains through the tubes from clumps of bigleaf maples in Pack Forest, a 4,300-acre experimental forest owned and operated by the UW since the 1920s. Ettl, who oversees Pack Forest, is helping lead UW’s latest experiment to produce maple syrup from these trees.

The sap is destined for a 500-gallon tank, then for transport by pickup truck to a nearby processing facility, a “sugar shack.” There, it will be reduced into a dark amber syrup with notes of bourbon, caramel and vanilla.

The finished product offers flavors more rich and layered than anything found in the supermarket.

As Ettl and his UW colleagues collect reams of data, they hope their work could grow an industry that boosts margins for small landowners, prevents the conversion of forest land for development and nourishes a more diverse forest. If Washington landowners can produce a liquid this delicious from bigleaf maples, which many consider a weed best to eradicate, the UW team reasons it will provide incentive enough to keep these beneficial trees on the landscape.

Long ago, someone — no one can say exactly who — started a nasty rumor.

“It’s been a long-held myth you can’t produce syrup from bigleaf maple,” said Kevin Zobrist, a Washington State University professor and extension forester.

Turns out, it just takes the right timing and temperature swings.

Scientists don’t fully understand the complex processes that drive sap flow.

But the basics are these: Maple trees manage water content during freezes and thaws. In cold weather, living cells dehydrate, so they don’t freeze and burst, Ettl said. When temperatures warm above freezing, water moves back into cells — creating a pressure gradient that pulls additional water, along with sugars and minerals, from the trees’ roots.

Back East, in places such as Vermont and Quebec so identified with maple syrup, sugar maple trees flow with sap as winter turns to spring and temperatures seesaw above and below freezing.

For bigleaf maples in the temperate Northwest, freezes and thaws are less consistent and more reliant on weather’s whims. Elevation and microclimates also play a role in sap production. Ultimately, it’s a longer and less predictable season and some believe the trees produce a sap less concentrated with sugar than their East Coast brethren.

Could these trees support a Northwest industry?

That’s the question Ettl and other researchers at UW, which received a $500,000 grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are trying to answer.

“We’re focused on collecting information to give to forest owners who are interested in this possibility as a source of revenue to help support their forest farms,” said Kent Wheiler, a UW associate professor and director of the Center for International Trade in Forest Products (CINTRAFOR).

The researchers plan to study four sites in Western Washington, gather data on factors like when and where sap is readily produced, the best methods to collect it, and under what conditions maple trees yield more sap and higher concentrations of sugars.

The researchers spent about $40,000 to outfit Pack Forest for production and testing. They have partnered also with a commercial syrup producer to gather data at his facility.

A sap pioneer

Convention has never been to Neil McLeod’s tastes. Once a fisherman in Western Alaska, McLeod has made a living raising bison and rabbits in Whatcom County, at his farm in Acme.

“I always used to have bees. That was our source of sugar for your coffee, and then when the colony collapse came along, I kept losing my hives,” McLeod said, explaining a frustration that led him toward syrup.

McLeod remembered a news article written in the 1970s about pulling sap from bigleaf maples native to Washington.

He began to experiment.

“My first year, I had a hard time getting sap, and I was ready to give up and I drilled a tree and it came pouring out,” he said.

Now, nearly a decade and more than 1,200 taps later, he’s a pioneer.

McLeod’s company, Neil’s Bigleaf Maple Syrup, is the only commercial producer of maple syrup on the U.S. West Coast. The company produced 224 gallons of bigleaf syrup last season.

“The flavors are a lot more intense,” said McLeod, in comparison with the East Coast product. “What I bottle today is going to have a really buttery [taste], have a hint of vanilla to it. You’ll taste the caramel, taste the maple.”

Devin Day, McLeod’s son, said the family business used connections forged through its rabbit sales to introduce its syrup to chefs across the Northwest, including those at top dining outlets such as Canlis and Tarsan i Jane.

“Rabbit’s not your normal commodity product you’re delivering to cafes. It was going to a lot of high-end restaurants,” Day said. “It was a perfect testing ground.”

Bigleaf maple syrup has been a hit among restaurateurs, he said.

Today, the company charges about $2 an ounce for maple syrup and distributes small bottles through online sales.

At Pack Forest, Ettl and forest technicians have installed hundreds of taps, stretched tubes across football-field-sized sections of forest and rigged, in one area, a vacuum pump to pull more sap than gravity allows.

Sensors, protected by plastic Solo cups, log temperature data throughout the day; some trees drain into buckets to measure their individual sap production. The most expensive equipment is contained in an earth-brown shed converted into the sugar shack.

Outside, a 700-gallon metal tank stores sap for processing. Hoses transport sap inside to a room that looks like an industrial kitchen, where it undergoes reverse osmosis, works its way through a five-compartment evaporator and then is filtered and cooked to just the right sugar content.

Rule of thumb says sap should be concentrated to about 66.5% sugar, Ettl said. Lower than 65%, and the syrup presents a risk for mold and is less stable; above 67.5% and the sugars could crystallize.

It’s a delicate dance.

“I totally burned a pan,” Ettl said of an early cooking attempt, which left equipment encrusted in sugar. “It took us a week to clean up.”

Scourge or sweet game changer?

Maple syrup offers an attractive novelty, if the flood of graduate students applying to assist UW’s research is any indication.

“They all want to work on maple syrup,” said Indroneil Ganguly, a UW associate professor and CINTRAFOR’s associate director.

The project’s research goals, of course, are more complicated than simply producing syrup. The researchers have ulterior motives.

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The economic value of most Washington forests lies in cutting down its Douglas firs.

Bigleaf maple can be used to make furniture or even specialty guitars, but often ends up sold as firewood. Some landowners, whose economic fortunes are tied to fir, see bigleaf maple as a scourge. Many have tried to eradicate the species from their land.

“In traditional forestry, it’s viewed as a weed,” said Al Craney, a retired forester in Skagit County who has been helping McLeod. “That’s a big mistake.”

Near streams, bigleaf maples provide important shade for fish. Their canopies, home to insects, provide food. Maple roots can prevent erosion. Maple seeds are food for terrestrial creatures.

Leaving maple groves after clear cut logging stands of fir could help maintain the stability of slopes, Ganguly said.

Syrup revenue also could prevent the conversion of forest land for development, which is the biggest cause of deforestation in Washington, Wheiler said.

A forest more diverse in species is likely more healthy. And if maples are producing revenue, that reduces financial pressure to harvest fir before it’s ideal.

“It changes the conversation of how you manage the forest. It totally turns it upside down,” Ettl said.

Pack Forest, which earns most of its revenue from timber harvest, faces similar challenges to many Washington landowners.

“We’re self-sustaining,” Ettl said. “We have revenue issues.”

When Ettl arrived to manage the forest in 2006, historic wildfires and aggressive cutting under previous leadership left the program with a high proportion of young trees and gaps in its schedule for harvest, he said.

“I’ve been fighting with it ever since I got here,” Ettl said.

An additional $10,000 to $20,000 a year in prospective syrup revenue could help fill the gaps.

View from the East

Bigleaf maple syrup sells now at several times the price of its East Coast counterpart.

“As with most small niche markets, there’s a price premium,” said Mike Farrell, the former director of Cornell University’s Uihlein Forest Maple Research Center and the owner of New Leaf Syrups, a company that specializes in unique tree syrups like birch, beech and walnut. Farrell pitched UW on applying for the USDA grant.

To Farrell, bigleaf maple syrup offers “deeper, richer flavors” than East Coast fare.

The UW researchers see industrial potential for some parts of Washington.

Demand for syrup was growing in Europe, India and China, Ganguly said in February, before the economic impacts of COVID-19 roiled international markets.

“The market is huge,” he said, and only the United States and Canada produce syrup.

No, East Coasters aren’t quaking in their boots over a syrup showdown, no matter how good syrup tastes out here.

“We’re very surprised about the amount of money being invested there,” said Simon Trepanier, executive director of the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers. “Seems obvious to us it will not be a big industry.”

Canada’s Quebec province produces 72% of the world’s maple syrup, according to the federation. Last year, its 7,400 member businesses produced more than 159 million pounds of maple syrup from more than 46 million taps.

Syrup is part of Quebecois culture.

“It’s running through my veins,” Trepanier said, saying children of the province retain happy memories of making maple taffy in the snow.

The federation spends millions of dollars each year on marketing. It’s often called a cartel because members control supply together. (Trepanier harshed at the word, cartel, because of its drug connotations. “We’re more like an OPEC of maple syrup,” he said, referring to the international oil partnership.)

The federation manages strategic reserve of maple syrup for “when mother nature is not generous enough,” Trepanier said.

(The reserve — a stockpile of thousands of steel drums filled with syrup and housed in a warehouse — was famously pilfered from in 2011 and 2012. “Sixty percent of the syrup there was stolen,” Trepanier said, adding that dozens were eventually arrested. “They were not bright enough.”)

Although Trepanier took a dim view of West Coast syrup’s industrial prospects, citing less reliable weather and other factors, he said the maple syrup business continues to grow and he welcomed upstarts to join against “fake” syrups proliferating grocery aisles.

“The real enemy is not U.S. maple syrup against Canada maple syrup or bigleaf maple syrup versus sugar maple syrup. It’s the real maple tree compared to fake syrup,” he said. “Rice syrup, corn syrup, those ones are not the real product … when you look at the bottles, there’s a small cabin in the woods. This is corn syrup. Why put a cabin?”

Coronavirus affects even syrup

The new coronavirus has upended life. Not even maple syrup could escape its effects.

As the outbreak spread and businesses closed, McLeod’s sales to restaurants came to a halt. Expansion plans now seem less assured.

Sap stopped flowing in late February at Pack Forest, and Ettl narrowly managed to finish processing and clean up before Gov. Jay Inslee halted most nonessential travel.

How much did UW produce in its first season of tapping trees?

More than 10 gallons but fewer than 20, Ettl said. He can’t know for sure because the bottles remain at Pack Forest, and he hasn’t been back since early March.

Portage Bay Cafe in Seattle had planned a March fundraiser at its locations, serving unique tree syrups and in support of Pack Forest. It was canceled on March 15, when it was revealed Inslee would announce an order to shutter restaurants.

Ettl and the UW researchers had aimed to market the syrup in the campus bookstore. Those plans are on hold.

“We’ve been hunkered down and trying to figure out the changes in our lives to date,” Ettl said.