Tapping Bigleaf Maple for Syrup Production

Bigleaf Maple Syrup

This website is dedicated to helping you learn to tap Bigleaf maple trees for syrup production. Not every tree is a good producer, but most maples will give sap if tapped during the right season and the right weather conditions. Top production is normally during January and February. The water table needs to be high. A few days of below freezing temperatures followed by a warming trend and a sunny day gives ideal tapping. With that said, we understand sap flows even less than we understand teenagers. Given ideal conditions single trees have been known to produce up to 200 litres of sap over one week.

A step-to-step video on tapping and syrup making is available at


We can be reached by email at bigleafmaplesyrup@gmail.com

Please note: we have retired from selling maple syrup and now only tap for our family's use.

Bigleaf Maple Syrup Festival

Join us at the BC Forest Discovery Centre in Duncan, BC for a fun filled two days of tapping, syrup making, syrup tasting, great music and tasty treats. The festival is open to the public on the first Saturday & Sunday of February. Visit www.forestdiscoverycentre.com. to find out more about this event. For a look at a past year's event, visit Cowichan Today.

Hosted by the BC Forest Discovery Centre and the Vancouver Island Sapsuckers.

Maple sap runs

Tapping can be done once the leaves are off the tree and until buds are about to open (November through early March). Sap flows are normally sweetest in January and February. On the West Coast, sap often flows a day before or after a weather change. Back East, cold nights followed by warm afternoons give the best flow. Our western sap ranges from 1% to 4% sugar and averages 2%, whereas the eastern sugar maples average just under 3% sugar. Sugar content can be measured with a hydrometer ($15) or brix refractometer ($80 to $200).

The Process of Tapping and Making Syrup

Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum) is the largest and most common maple on Vancouver Island. The tree creates sugar in its leaves using photosynthesis and stores that sugar in its roots and sapwood. The tree uses this sugar to grow buds, new leaves, branches, additional sapwood and to heal wounds. Sapwood is near the outside of the tree and is used as the conduit for moving sap.

Choosing which trees to tap

Look for trees with a wide-open crown. Trunk diameter should be between 4 inches and 18 inches, the the bark should be somewhat smooth. Back East they also want a trunk that receives direct sunlight to thaw the sap within the tree. Although large diameter trees are desirable in the East, here in the West large old gnarled hobbit maples seldom give much sap unless you can tap a sucker stem. When a maple tree is cut down, it will send up many new shoots (coppices) from the stump. These work well for tapping as they have a large established root system and you can use a big bucket to collect from several stems.

How to tap

Taps are called spiles. Most commercial spiles are designed for a 7/16 inch hole. Ideally you want to tap at a convenient height. Some folks recommend that you tap on the sunny side and directly under a large branch. Others say to work around the tree and slightly higher with each new hole (assuming you tap the same tree year after year). Tap holes are more productive if drilled on days when the sap is flowing. The hole is drilled 2 inches to 2.5 inches deep at a slight upward angle. If you drill too deep you may hit heartwood and decay.

Drilling the hole wounds the tree and the tree will heal the wound. You may find that your holes will dry up before you want them too. Usually you will have to drill a new hole nearby after about 4 to 5 weeks. After the spile is removed it will take about a year for the hole to fill over with new wood.

When drilling the hole you should use a twist bit as opposed to a flat (speed) bit. A flat bit can clog the “vessels” of the hole, reducing sap flow. Once the hole is drilled, drive the spile in place gently with a hammer to prevent leakage. Some spiles have a small hole that can clog up and stop the flow. You may want to pull a spile after several weeks and make sure wood or sugar is not plugging up the spile.

Sap collection and handling

Four-litre plastic milk jugs work well for sap collection. Cut a hole where they start to taper for the neck and slip the jug over the spile. For highly productive trees or multiple stems, connecting the spiles with tubing to a large bucket works well. Your collection system should prevent rainwater and insects from mixing with the sap. 16-litre cooking oil buckets (available free from restaurants) work well for collection and handling.

Collect sap at least every three days. Most of the run occurs during the warmest part of the day, although trees may flow all night long. Store sap in a cool place. As sap contains sugar and yeast, it can sour. Ideally you should boil down every few days.

Sap usage

Sap (a.k.a. maple water) can be used raw in place of water for cooking and for beverages. It contains amino acids, vitamins and many trace minerals. Using sap in place of water for tea, coffee, cooking rice, soup, stew, bread, etc. will give pleasant results. You may even forget about making syrup. Unfortunately sap is only available for three or four months, so making syrup is a great way to condense and preserve this wonderful product for use during the other eight months of the year.

Making syrup, the boil-down

Sap is about 98% water, and boiling causes evaporation, which reduces it to syrup. At 2% sugar it will take about 43 litres of sap to make one litre of syrup. If the boiling-down is done indoors, you will have 42 litres of steam to deal with. Using wood or propane heat outdoors is preferred. Stainless steel or cast iron flat bottom pans or large diameter kettles are best. Sap is considered syrup at 66.5% sugar.

  1. Fill pan with sap and heat to a rolling boil (some people filter the sap first)
  2. Skim off foam if present
  3. Add additional sap as level drops (add sap slowly in order not to kill the boil)
  4. Taste occasionally for sweetness. Sap can burn easily when it is close to being done, so when it tastes quite sweet, bring the pan indoors to finish carefully on the stove
  5. You can judge doneness by taste alone or by measuring temperature. Boil some water and measure the boiling temperature with a candy thermometer. Water turns to a gas at boiling so you can only reach approx. 212 degrees F and no hotter. The boiling temperature of water changes daily with atmospherics conditions. Your syrup will be 66.7% sugar once its boiling temperature reaches 7 degrees F higher than the temperature of boiling water. It's the sugar in the syrup that allows you to reach the higher temperature.

CAUTION: Your sap/syrup will be a very hot liquid, so be careful!! Things move fast at the end and many people accidentally burn or boil-over and ruin all their hard work. It is best to finish off a large quantity of syrup rather than a small one. It is recommended that sap be evaporated until about 50% sugar, frozen and stored until you have at least a litre to finish.

Preserving and storing

Strain the hot finished syrup through a felt or milk filter to remove the sugar sand (coffee filters will work, but not well). This sand can also be settled out in the jars. The sap can then be poured into hot sterile jars and sealed or frozen. The sugar content preserves the syrup. If the sugar content is too low, the syrup may spoil. Syrup that grows mold can be filtered and re-boiled with no damage to the flavour.

Bigleaf maple syrup

Our western maple syrup has more flavour that its eastern cousin. While good on pancakes, it excels for use in cooking baked beans, many deserts and as a glaze for vegetables, ham, ribs and fish. Other favourites include over ice cream and fruit and as an ingredient in salad dressings.

Additional information regarding bigleaf maple syrup. Bigleaf Maple Syrup

Additional information regarding bigleaf maple sap. Bigleaf Maple Sap

Looking for a well-illustrated book on tapping bigleaf maple?

Bigleaf Sugaring: tapping the western maple, by Gary and Katherine Backlund.

Click here for ordering information

Also available through Amazon.ca, Amazon.com

This web site is part of an agroforestry initiative project and was funded in part by the Agroforestry Industry Development Initiative