Neil McLeod needed sweetener for his morning coffee. Colony collapse had killed his beehives, erasing his home-grown honey supply. He dislikes industrial processed sugar: “No flavor.”
The answer was right out his Northwest Washington kitchen window: bigleaf maple trees, the West Coast’s iconic, massive, robust, and oft-derided chieftains of the Acer genus. These are the largest maples on Earth, surpassing 30 feet in circumference, 110 feet in height, and 90 feet in crown spread. They are magnificent hardwoods whose dynamic growth creates dense deciduous forests along waterways and on wet slopes from Southeast Alaska to California, and whose eponymous, Paul Bunyan-esque leaves turn butter-colored each fall.
And they have long been considered worthless.
Western timber managers see them as an impediment to the monoculture conifer plantations they have sought for centuries. Lumber makers believe the wood is brittle, checks and cracks easily, and is hard to mill and structurally useless. Though they are maples, legend says the syrup—if you can make it at all—is undesirable, and only possible where temperatures drop below zero.
“‘Can’t be done,’” McLeod recalled, smiling. “‘Not enough sap. Wrong climate. Bad taste.’ Foresters sneered.”
In 2012, he disregarded all that conventional wisdom. “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge, but imagination,” Albert Einstein said. So McLeod began tapping bigleaf maples near Acme, Washington, and boiling the sap down into a robust, hearty syrup whose sugar content is similar to that from the East Coast’s famous sugar maples—but whose flavor profile is as broad and brawny as bigleaf trees themselves.
Doing the ImpossibleCompact and burly, a land manager as his day job, McLeod evinces the stubborn independence his Scottish ancestors have been famed for. These are people, remember, who hurl trees through the air for fun.
So, starting out by tapping a few trees, boiling the sap down in kettles outdoors over wood fires (in the cold rain at night), McLeod soon learned that hillside maples were indeed poor producers—but streamside trees literally gush sap, especially after heavy winter rains. In the Upper Nooksack River Valley a hundred miles northeast of Seattle, riparian maple groves and winter torrents are both ubiquitous.
As McLeod refined his craft, he began producing a distinctive syrup with a flavor like no other. If anything, it resembles sorghum molasses—smoky, musty, rich, and dense. Its color is cherry-walnut. The sweetness is complex, like heirloom apple cider. The aroma is autumn leaf piles smoldering in morning rain.
Good enough for a business? “No way,” he was told, again. Can’t be done to scale. Too strong a flavor.
But in 2016, McLeod’s son Devin Day sold a small bottle to the chef at Canlis, Seattle’s famed fine dining, multiple James Beard Award-winning restaurant. A few other chefs got on board, the family started up online sales in 2017, and presto, an impossible business turned into a success: Neil's Bigleaf Maple Syrup.
Today, McLeod’s network of siphon tubes threads the woods like an elvish cat’s cradle. He begins tapping when autumn rains start in late October, and winds down as the dry season approaches mid-March. Vacuum pumps siphon the sap into a gleaming production facility where a commercial evaporator cooks the syrup down. The raw sap is about half as sweet as that from sugar maples, so he first uses reverse osmosis to concentrate it from an average of 1.3 percent sugar to 8 percent, before boiling it down to a syrup around 66.5 to 70 percent.
This past winter, he turned about 40,000 gallons of raw sap from 2,000 taps into 250 gallons of finished syrup in three grades. The lightest, “amber,” is from early season sap; mid-grade “dark” is produced in midwinter; the darkest, which is labeled for cooking, comes at the end of the season.
Maple Forests ForeverStewart Mountain towers 3,000 feet above this end of the Nooksack Valley. Biblical rains bring down fearsome floods followed by gossamer rainbows in cotton mists. Old dairy pastures line the valley.
Like most booming entrepreneurial enterprises, the biggest constraint to McLeod’s business growth is supply—he and Day say they could sell an entire winter’s production in a couple days. So they envision a transformational new industry based on bigleaf syrup. Why not plant bigleaf maples on the thousands of acres of now-fallow pasture rendered useless by the collapse of the regional dairy industry? The Acme area once supported seven dairies. Now there’s one. Retired farmers and loggers gather in the mornings at the Acme Diner to savor biscuits and gravy and debate power tools and how the world went sideways. McLeod wants to set this microcosm on an entirely new track.
“I can start tapping trees at about eight years,” McLeod said. “It’ll kill half the trees, but I’ll double-plant and wind up with 50 percent survival. At 3,000 trees an acre, that’s a lot of sap.” Of the trees that survive, once they’re established, tapping does no harm (McLeod moves the taps each autumn, and the tiny old holes heal over quickly). Grown in their ideal habitat, riparian lowlands, the maples would aid salmon stream restoration, need little or no industrial input—no fertilizer, no irrigation, no pesticides—and accomplish carbon sequestration while producing syrup.
“I think we can start a whole new West Coast industry here.”
But maple seedlings are almost impossible to come by—remember, the timber industry considers them weeds and has actively eradicated the trees for decades—so last spring, Day used a boom truck to hand-gather about 200,000 seeds. The seedlings are now in flats in greenhouses and planted outside across their property, as they test various conditions for growing them. Planted out, they thrive in (surprise) heavy rain.
They plan to use the seeds germinated from this season for their first forest planting, then expand in 2023, ideally working with other landowners to plant thousands of acres.
"We've been calling this our 'forever forest model,'" Day said. "Big stands of bigleaf maples create a rainforest-like canopy, and this is what we are hoping to rebuild in Washington with landowners—bring back Washington's once vast rainforests."
Meanwhile, each morning McLeod’s coffee bears out the reason this all began a decade ago. Stirring in a spoon of his darkest syrup, grabbing one of his wife Delight’s maple scones, he is among those rare individuals who turned a supposedly crazy idea into a brilliant success.
“It’s perfect for black coffee,” he said. “Perfect for a lot of things. And like nothing else anywhere.”