A while back, Key Peninsula resident Marilyn Brennen decided to stick a syrup tap in one of the maple trees on her property, curious to see what would come out.
Sugar maples, the variety of tree from which most commercially available maple syrup is made, grow in climates colder than the northwest, primarily Canada and the northeastern U.S. But according to Brennen, the trees that grow here, bigleaf maples, produce a sap that can be boiled down to syrup, too.
“The sugar content is a bit higher than that of the big leaf, which is why, I suspect, the bigleaf has been ignored as a viable source of syrup,” she said.
Brennen was working for the WSU Mason County Extension, coordinating their 4-H Forestry Education program when she first decided to experiment with tapping her own trees.
So what happened with Brennen’s experiment?
“The first sap that came into our collection container looked so clear we thought that perhaps rain water had somehow gotten into the container and were about to toss it. But we decided to see what would happen if we boiled it down. We watched this quart of sap boil down to about a couple of tablespoons of the most delicious syrup, and we were hooked,” she said.
From humble beginnings, Brennen has built a prospering and unique hobby.
“This year we’ve been collecting sap from six trees. Three trees on our property and three from the farm of our friends, Mark and Cindy Knisely. I started tapping about mid-January and just finished my fourth batch,” Brennen said.
Brennen said among the most common questions she receives has to do with whether tapping injures a tree. “No, it does not. The tapping holes are about 5/16″ to 7/16″ in diameter, depending upon the type of spile you use, and a couple of inches deep. The taps are pulled as soon as buds on the tree start to burst. Unless the tree is already compromised by some disease process, it heals up very quickly,” she said.
Brennen also has to chuckle when folks ask her what goes into syrup other than maple sap. “Pure maple syrup is just that: ‘pure maple syrup.’ You simply boil it down to evaporate the water,” she said.
However, if boiling down sap sounds easy, don’t be fooled. Brennen says the sap-to-syrup ratio is daunting. “I wait until I get 10 gallons of sap to make it worth the tedium of boil-down. This year I’ve averaged over a quart of syrup for every 10 gallons of sap. When the sap reaches syrup stage I seal it in sterilized canning jars,” she said.
Homemade maple syrup has found its way into many of Brennen’s favorite recipes.
“I’ve made maple sugar candy, maple fudge, maple soufflé, maple mousse, maple-glazed salmon, maple cream cookies, maple-glazed pork tenderloin, and a delicious barbecue sauce for ribs,” Brennen said.
How is the taste? Claude Garhard, known locally for Trillium Creek Winery, is a friend of Brennen’s and said, “It’s not overly sweet, and it has wonderful flavor. It’s very light, and great on pancakes.”
According to Brennen, for those eager to rush out and begin tapping their own bigleaf maples, information about how to go about doing so, as well as the supplies needed to get started, are easily available online.