As spring temperatures begin to tempt people into going outside, a long-held practice begins in the forests of the northeast. It’s a season of harvest for an all-time comfort food that evokes an almost folktale imagery because of its time-honored traditions and connections to our youth. 

From tapping trees to boiling sap, the journey of maple syrup is a story of craftsmanship, patience, and connection to the land. But did you know this story doesn’t belong alone to the deep wooded forests of Vermont or vast stretches of Canada? This sweet tale is truly Utah’s own.


The Foundation for an Industry

In 2021, Dr. Youping Sun of the Plants, Soils, and Climate Department at Utah State University, was awarded a grant to explore the possibility of developing a maple syrup industry in the Intermountain West. The plan called to research many native maple tree species to see if it would be possible to establish a foothold for an industry to take off.

After years of research into the possibilities, students at the university began descending into forests and hillsides of Utah to try and turn the theory into reality. Jesse Mathews, a graduate researcher in the same department, was working on a master’s degree in plant science and took on the challenge. The first reality that hit him right away was the math associated with converting sap into syrup and the scope for the number of trees they would need. 

“We found that Box Elder maples found in northern Utah were great producers, but were so spread out that it was impractical to use those to get enough sap needed to make syrup,” Mathews said. “The forest service estimated there were 250,000 Box Elder maples, but more than 14 million Bigtooth maples, most of which were along the Wasatch Front from Utah County to Cache County. So, we switched our focus.”


The Tapping Process

Maple syrup production starts in the fall, when Mathews and his crew set up a system of taps and tubing by drilling small holes into the trees and inserting spouts or taps. Each tap allows the clear, watery sap to trickle into collection containers, such as buckets or tubing systems. Contrary to popular belief, tapping a maple tree doesn't harm it; when done correctly, trees can be tapped for decades without adverse effects.  

Jesse Mathews, the USU Graduate student working on the maple syrup project, shows some of the maple trees tapped for sap.

Beyond sheer numbers, another advantage of the Bigtooth maples was that they often grow in clusters relatively close to each other, which allowed for better harvesting. In late winter or early spring when temperatures fluctuate between freezing at night and thawing during the day, the fluctuation creates pressure changes in the maple trees, causing sap to flow.

Rather than tapping and having to collect from each individual tree, Mathews has been able to use a gravity-fed tubing system to guide sap directly to 55-gallon storage tanks and collect from multiple trees at the same time.

Mathews found a willing partner for the project in homeowners in Woodland Hills, a community on the hillside above Salem in Utah County. Interested property owners with the desired trees formed a non-profit organization called the Bigtooth Maple Project. They would provide the volunteers and trees, and the university would provide the expertise and equipment. 

The sap of multiple Bigtooth maple trees flow into a 55-gallon barrel to aid in collection.

With the temperatures right and sap flowing, Mathews and the volunteers with the Bigtooth Maple Project go about a daily collection routine of checking the taps and barrels for sap levels and ensuring the collection vessels are clean and properly positioned. 

From Sap to Sugar

After collecting the sap, the next stage is where the magic happens — the evaporation process that transforms watery sap into rich, golden maple syrup. 

“Really, that’s all it is. In meeting with health inspectors to get permits to sell the syrup, it went pretty easy because this is a one-ingredient product,” Mathews said. 

The evaporation process starts with funneling the sap through a reverse osmosis system – just like you’d find in some homes – to take the sap from a 2-3% sugar content to approximately 8%. With that added water gone, the solution is poured into evaporative basins fueled by burning wood. This next stage concentrates the sugar further to approximately 50-60% sugar. Through two additional boiling stations, the product is concentrated further and further until it hits the sweet spot of 67% sugar, at which point it is considered pure maple syrup. 

Mathews shows some of the syrup cooking down to increase sugar concentration.

The math of the concentration process leads to approximately 40 gallons of sap turning into one gallon of syrup. The difficulty in producing the product has led to the rise of imitation maple flavoring used in many products today. Mathews further shared that there was more pure maple syrup produced 200 years ago than we have today, as it was the main source of sugar for cooking. Now, it’s cheaper and faster to use imitation.


The Future of Maple Syrup in Utah

Maple syrup isn't just for drizzling over pancakes and waffles; it adds depth and complexity to various dishes, from savory glazes and marinades to decadent desserts. But the project has also been about building community as well as a new food product. 

The Big Tooth Maple Project created a festival last year, where syrup could be sold to local residents. 

“We sold our entire year’s production in just 40 minutes,” said Greg Witt with the Bigtooth Maple Project. “Some of our residents are quite sparsely connected because of our geography, so this project has been a great way to connect people.” 

Greg Witt hold some of the syrup from the 2023 harvest.

They have planned for a bigger offering this year. The hope was to double production and sell 800 bottles, but Mathews indicated after the harvest that they have more than 920 8 oz. bottles of syrup, which again will only be sold at the festival, which is held the 3rd Saturday in April in Woodland Hills. 

As far as the research, Mathews and his crew found that maple syrup could successfully be produced in Utah. The challenge is with the math and number of maples needed. With such a large number of trees scattered mostly on public land throughout the state, a creative approach to working with federal land management agencies would be needed to help an industry take off. Though this is the largest commercial maple project west of the Mississippi, it’s important to know that Canada supplies 75% of the world’s maple syrup – mostly in the Province of Quebec. The U.S. principally supplies the other 25% of the world’s maple, and that is mostly in Vermont. Increasing the availability of trees to harvest will be critical to making the industry successful in Utah. 

Witt, Mathews, and other residents are hopeful that with a little creativity and effort, more communities could be seeing the sweet taste of togetherness. More information on the project can be found at Bigtooth Maple Syrup on Facebook.