The Crooked Chimney, in Lee, New Hampshire, is in business when the sap runs. But this is not your typical maple tree sap. This sap comes from the birch tree.
“I knew a lot of people that were making maple syrup. I wanted to do something new,” David Moore said.
That was back in 2009, and for a while he was either the only, or one of two, commercial birch syrup producers in the Northeast. But it’s now a growing market, and Moore has been fielding calls from maple producers who want to expand.
As if in confirmation of the growing popularity of birch syrup production, Paul Smith’s College recently held the International Birch Sap and Syrup Conference, this past June. Birch tasting competitions, birch basket making and technical information on birch sugaring were on tap.
The birch syrup industry has been going strong in Alaska and Canada for quite some time. But making inroads into the Northeast’s maple syruping regions was, up until recently, a slow process.
“There are folks in Alaska and Canada who tap hundreds of thousands of trees,” Moore said.
Not quite maple
Birch syrup production has plenty of similarities to that of maple. From tapping the trees, collecting the sap, and concentrating it via boiling, the overall methods parallel that of maple syrup production. Most of the equipment and the process itself is the same. It’s the small details that differ.
“It is a bit later. It typically starts within a day or two of the end of maple” sap, Moore said of birch sap, which runs when daytime temperatures reach 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and nights still see frost.
While that makes it a good fit for maple producers who can finish up the maple sap and begin collecting from the birch trees, it isn’t quite that simple. During a long, cold winter, sap times will overlap, which could lead to some production issues.
“It’s a lot more intensive than maple,” Moore said. “Since the season for birch syrup is later in the spring than maple, producers really need to be concerned with keeping the sap under refrigeration. It has to be collected and processed every day.”
Birch sap has a different chemical composition, Moore said. Birch syrup, due to a higher content of reducing sugars, doesn’t caramelize the same way maple does. If boiled, its sugar molecules – primarily fructose and glucose, as opposed to maple’s sucrose – will scorch.
“As soon as it colors up – you shouldn’t boil it,” but you should take it to just about the boiling point, he said. “It’s really nice if you have a propane evaporator,” to better manage the heat, he said, although he himself uses a wood-fired evaporator.
In addition, the birch sap is more reactive than maple sap, and will react with many metals, affecting the taste. Stainless steel, plastic or glass should be used in birch syrup production. While maple syrup finishes at 66.7 degrees Brix (sugar content), Moore’s birch syrup requires 72 degrees Brix. The birch syrup is not viscous enough otherwise, Moore said, so additional processing time is needed.
Having a reverse osmosis machine is one of the biggest requirements for birch syrup production. Reverse osmosis removes the excess water from the sap. Because of the higher water concentration of birch sap than maple, reverse osmosis is almost a necessity.
“When you make syrup, you have to remove the water. If you start with more concentrated sap, it’s more efficient,” Moore explained.
Moore has approximately 225 taps on 50 acres of land. The land is also home to a separate maple sugaring operation. Moore yields an average of one-half gallons of sap per day, per tap. Each tap yields about six gallon of sap per season, which is the equivalent of about 100 eight-ounce bottles. The duration of the season is two to three weeks. The ratio of sap/syrup gallons is about 120/1, unlike maple’s 40/1 ratio. Thus, it takes three times as much sap to make one gallon of syrup, when comparing birch to maple.
Moore has tapped a variety of birch species. All species of birch taste the same, with an underlying wintergreen scent. During the 2009 and 2010 seasons, he compared the sap of paper, black and yellow birch trees, studying about 30 trees of each type. While the sap of the black and yellow birch was 0.5 degrees Brix, the paper birch sap measured 1.0 to 1.2 degrees Brix, making it a much better candidate for commercial birch syrup production. With twice the degree of Brix value reading – indicating twice the sugar content – it is twice as economical to boil the sap down to syrup, he said. A graphic of these results can be found at http://www.crookedchimneysyrup.com/?page_id=24.
For maple producers interested in the economic feasibility of birch syrup production, research at the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center, conducted by Abby van den Berg, indicates that birch syrup is a viable option. The research, conducted during the 2012 and 2013 seasons, concluded that existing maple sugaring operations could profitably add birch syrup production (http://nsrcforest.org/project/birch-syrup-production-may-increase-economic-sustainability-maple-syrup-production-northern).
According to the report, the equipment needed from tap to syrup is relatively the same for production of either syrup, and therefore minimal new equipment purchases would be needed. The season for birch normally begins right after the end of maple season. The research data demonstrated that the yield of sap and syrup from trees in the Northern Forest region was comparable to data from Alaska’s large birch syrup operations.
Van den Berg’s research indicates that operations of 100 taps would have a break-even point of about $45/quart. With the current retail price of birch syrup being over $20 per half pint, even operations at the 100-tap level could prove profitable, with increased profitability expected as tap numbers increase.
Moore, who look a hiatus from birch syrup production after the 2015 season, was selling his 8-ounce bottles for $25 apiece. He has already sold out of his syrup. Birch syrup fans do have at least one other birch syrup source in New England: The Vermont Birch Syrup Company, (http://www.vermontbirchsyrupcompany.com) in Glover, Vermont. Moore has referred his customers to them.
Moore has experimented with other syrups, too. He has tapped sycamore treess over numerous years. But he’s found that the sap doesn’t run each year. Most years he ended up with no production.
He did collect sycamore sap during two seasons, once in January, and another time in February. The common link was temperature. Periods of warmth, with daytime temperatures into the 50s and 60s, caused the sap to run. The sycamore sap runs during maple sugaring season, on those really warm days when the maple sap doesn’t. There isn’t much research, Moore said, on sycamore sap.
Other trees whose sap potential is being studied include walnut trees. Mike Farrell, Director of the Uihlein Forest – Cornell’s Sugar Maple Research & Extension Field Station in Lake Placid, New York, has tapped a wide variety of walnut trees. One such species – the butternut – produces a sap with increased pectin, but only one-half of the water of other saps. The pectin, which is what forms jelly, has to be filtered out. Walnut syrups are similar in color and taste to maple – with a more nutty flavor, according to Moore. Farrell has also tapped about 800 birch trees.
Sap from the untapped potential of these alternative species of trees could enhance the economic viability of forest land owners, providing them alternatives to logging. And, those already sugaring could consider expanding operations to capture the potential of other tree species.
By tapping other tree species, greater biodiversity can be achieved, without sacrificing economic opportunity. Because trees such as the paper birch grow in early successional forests, they provide both the opportunity to create these communities in otherwise uniform, old growth forests, and to allow those with such a habitat already to generate income.
“When you have a clear cut, you get cherry, paper birch,” Moore said.
Although these “other” syrups may soon share more shelf space with maple, don’t be tempted to simply pour them on pancakes. Moore advises that the taste of birch syrup is “more savory” than maple, and is better used in other culinary ways. His suggestions include: glazing for bakery goods, vegetables or meat; syrup for ice cream; sweetener for coffee; or a salad dressing, mixed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Cover and photos courtesy Vermont Birch Syrup Company