SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
On the West Coast, there's probably more written on how to get rid of native bigleaf maple trees than how to grow them. Trees are often just used for low-value pulp. But now they're beginning to make money right where they stand by being tapped for maple syrup. The Northwest News Network's Anna King explains.
ANNA KING, BYLINE: Now is prime tree-tapping time. Freezes at night and thaws during the day help the sap run. At Neil's Bigleaf Maple Syrup Farm, north of Seattle, owner Neil McLeod says tapping bigleaf maple sap is like fishing in Alaska.
NEIL MCLEOD: When the fish were there - didn't matter what the weather was. You fished, or the fish went by. Sap is the same thing. I have to be on it. When it's running, I have to be out there. No matter what the weather, no matter what day it is, I'm out there collecting sap.
KING: Inside McLeod's sugar barn, he's cooking down the raw tree sap. It's a maple-scented sauna in here. It takes 60 to 100 gallons of sap to make one gallon of finished syrup. McLeod is the first commercial producer in the state. And he's tapping like mad.
MCLEOD: If I'm successful, I'm starting a whole new industry in Washington state.
KING: He's got 1,200 caps on 200 acres. He's planting thousands more trees and looking for additional land leases. He's even in negotiations with Washington State to tap government lands.
More than 60 miles south of Seattle toward Mt. Rainier National Park is the University of Washington's experimental Pack Forest.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
KING: Here, workers are stringing wire and plastic tubing from tree to tree. The thin tubes run from each bigleaf maple tap to a larger mainline that runs downhill. The gravity of the steep grade creates a vacuum that pulls sap from the trees through the tubes into a main collection vat. Greg Ettl manages Pack Forest. He says syrup production in the Northwest could change forests. Right now, maples aren't often planted back after commercial logging.
GREG ETTL: We have progressively lost bigleaf maple from the system.
KING: A half-million-dollar USDA grant is helping to pay for this whole operation.
ETTL: And so this bigleaf maple syruping project provides an opportunity to find another way to use bigleaf maple to keep bigleaf maple in the system and to help us have more diverse forests.
KING: Producers say they are having trouble keeping up with demand for Washington-tapped syrup. It's going for around $2 an ounce wholesale.
BRADY WILLIAMS: What I like about this maple syrup is not only just, like, the sweetness. But there is a little bit of, like, umami and earthiness.
KING: Brady Williams is the executive chef at Canlis, a high-end restaurant in Seattle. He buys gallons of bigleaf maple syrup at a time.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHIPPING)
KING: Williams whips together cream and maple syrup, then serves it with Idaho sturgeon caviar and stroopwafels. He likes Washington's bigleaf maple syrup because it tastes like vanilla, caramel and smoke.
WILLIAMS: To me, it tastes how it feels up there, right? - which is, I think, what we're going for.
KING: He says, like a fine wine, the maple syrup has its own terroir. For NPR News, I'm Anna King in Seattle.
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