Barb Lachenbruch and Everett Hansen live in Corvallis during the week, but they spend most of their weekends at their log cabin in the Coast Range.
No wonder: The setting is spectacular — 80 acres of lushly forested land on Little Lobster Creek, about 15 miles southwest of Alsea near the border of Benton and Lincoln counties — and the cabin itself is a delightfully rustic retreat, with a wood-burning stove in the living room, a propane range in the kitchen and a wood-fired hot tub on the back deck.
“We have sourdough pancakes every morning,” Lachenbruch said with a grin.
And lately they’ve been topping off their breakfast with a homemade treat: maple syrup from trees growing wild on their property.
The commercially produced syrup you buy at the grocery store typically comes from the sap of sugar maple, red maple or black maple trees that grow in the frosty climate of eastern Canada or the northeastern United States. But Lachenbruch, an Oregon State University forestry professor, met a maple syrup expert at a conference and asked if he thought she might be able to make syrup from a Pacific Northwest native, the bigleaf maple.
“He said, ‘Of course you can,’” she recalled.
Lachenbruch found a wealth of information online about making syrup from bigleaf maple trees, and last September she bought her husband a book on the subject for his birthday. In November, they tapped their first trees.
The tools of their hobby are pretty basic: 10 small stainless-steel spigots, called spiles, purchased online from a company in British Columbia; some lengths of food-grade latex tubing; an assortment of recycled plastic milk jugs and juice bottles; a cordless electric drill; and a hammer.
“It’s so easy,” said Lachenbruch, holding up a spile as she knelt in front of a tree. “You just drill a hole and tap it in.”
The trick is to drill deep enough to get through the bark and the cambium into the sapwood, but not so deep that you damage the sensitive heartwood at the center of the trunk.
“People say it doesn’t hurt the trees,” Lachenbruch said — although her husband, a retired OSU botany and forest pathology professor, felt obliged to amend that statement.
“It doesn’t do them any good,” Hansen said, “but these small wounds heal very quickly.”
In general, maple trees can be tapped from mid-November to early March, but Lachenbruch and Hansen didn’t start getting much sap in their containers until about the third week in December.
“You really seem to need the branches to freeze and then to thaw to get the sap,” Lachenbruch said.
Maple trees have specialized fiber cells that promote freezing and the storage of frozen water, explained Lachenbruch, whose academic specialty involves the hydraulics and biomechanics of trees. When the branches freeze in the winter, that causes them to take up moisture from the soil; when they thaw, that moisture flows down through the trunk as sap.
Once the freeze-thaw cycles kicked in and the sap started flowing, it flowed a little faster than the couple expected.
“We’re not very sophisticated,” a rueful Hansen admitted. “When we started out, we had smaller containers, and one time we overflowed our containers. That hurts.”
Still, they managed to collect enough sap to make their first batch of bigleaf maple syrup. The recipe is simple: Run the sap through a filter to get the twigs, leaves and bugs out, then boil it down till what remains is about two-thirds sugar. (The proportion should be about right when the boiling point of the liquid in your pan is 7 degrees Fahrenheit above the normal boiling point of water.)
“Anybody can do it,” Lachenbruch said. “There’s no chemistry.”
And the result is delicious.
“It’s really tasty,” she said. “I find it a little tart or acid compared to normal maple syrup.”
But here’s the catch: It takes a lot of sap to make syrup. For bigleaf maple, we’re talking 60 to 80 gallons of sap for a single gallon of syrup, compared with a 40-to-1 ratio for sugar maple.
“This is our year’s haul,” Hansen said, pointing to a pair of pint-sized Mason jars filled with amber fluid and a third jar that was less than half full.
“You figure out pretty quick that it doesn’t pencil out, as they say,” he added. “The energy to boil it down is much more than the sugar you get.”
So why do it? The couple struggle a bit to explain the appeal of their DIY project.
In part, it’s because making homemade syrup gives them a sense of kinship with the rough-and-ready settlers who homesteaded the area more than a century ago.
“It’s a totally different world,” Hansen acknowledged. “We can afford to have fun and try different things …”
“… and pretend to be pioneers,” his wife added, finishing the thought.
Tapping native bigleaf maple trees to produce the syrup also makes them feel closer to nature.
“The whole thing feels sort of … just,” Lachenbruch said. “There’s so much that we do that feels out of balance. This makes us feel that there’s some things we do that aren’t contributing to the problems of our consumption and waste.”
But there’s something else, too — something intimately personal about making syrup from trees growing just a few steps from their door.
The same rain that falls on their cabin roof is soaked up through the roots of those maples, taking in minerals and nutrients from the earth. The trees’ subtle alchemy infuses those ingredients into the sap, and it all comes back to Lachenbruch and Hansen when they bite into their breakfast pancakes.
Their homemade syrup has its own very particular terroir, a word coined by French winemakers to express the unique characteristics imparted to grapes by the soil and the climate in which they were grown. It’s that intangible something that makes wine from one vineyard taste just a bit different from wine made one or two valleys away.
As Lachenbruch put it: “It makes you feel closer to the land where you are.”