In Alaska and Canada birch trees have been tapped for sap for centuries. In New England, maple syrup has been the prime product, although birch trees are also prevalent in many parts of the region.
For Bucky Shelton, a partner in Vermont Birch Syrup Company and long-time maple syrup producer, birch trees have become more than just another tree in the sugarbush. They’ve become a food crop, providing sap which is ultimately transformed into a versatile cooking syrup.
Shelton’s new adventures in sap began with the realization that birch sap is a sought-after product, and that he might want to take a look at his sugarbush using a different perspective. Joining forces with a friend whose property is abundant with birch, the Vermont Birch Syrup Company was born.
Not quite maple
Birch sap begins to run just as maple sap stops. Mike Farrell, Director of the Uihlein Maple Research Forest of Cornell University, where 700 birch trees are being tapped, received a 2015 Northern New York Agricultural Development Program Grant, focused on further researching and developing the niche marketing opportunity for birch syrup in Northern New York. Farrell was interviewed on North Country Public Radio earlier this year, where he discussed opportunities available in the region for birch syrup production.
Currently, birch syrup is being produced on a limited basis in the region, and there is a need for more syrup production to meet the current demand, Farrell said. Birch syrup does offer the opportunity for maple producers to extend their season, utilizing the equipment, skills, and basic processes they already have, but requiring some adjustments. Collecting birch in metal causes a chemical reaction, which alters the taste. Because of its higher water content, one difficulty is removing the water without burning the sap in the evaporator. With glucose and fructose being the dominant forms of sugar in birch sap, it will caramelize at lower temperatures than sucrose-based maple sap. Producers are advised to utilize reverse osmosis units to remove as much water from the sap as possible prior to boiling in the evaporator.
Birch sap flows from root pressure, which is different than in maple trees, whose sap runs due to other physiological factors, and requires above-freezing temperatures.
“Making birch syrup is similar to making maple,” Shelton said, but characteristics of the raw sap do make it a bit more temperamental than maple.
Some of these differences have led Shelton to alter his sugarmaking practices to accommodate the requirements of the birch sap. Although the process is the same, and he finishes the syrup at a density of 67 Brix, just like maple; the birch requires a few additional considerations, and a gentle touch.
“We take it off the evaporator a bit light, and finish it slowly on a propane finisher,” he said. “We do use a smaller evaporator than the one I use for maple, and we do concentrate the sap with reverse osmosis.”
Shelton has found that the raw birch sap has a sugar content ranging from 0.6 percent to one percent. This is much lower than maple, and it takes three times as much birch sap to make a gallon of syrup when compared to maple’s sap-to-syrup ratio. So maple sugarmakers, used to boiling about 40 gallons of sap per gallon of syrup, will have to adjust to boiling about 120 gallons of birch for each gallon of syrup.
Finished birch syrup is a deep red color. It has a complex taste, Shelton said, and while suitable in many situations, pouring it over pancakes is not one of its culinary uses. Instead, it can be used in making glazes for baked goods or meats, or to make sauces and dressings.
In order to tap his birch trees, Shelton had to add tubing, as the birch tend to clump together in groups, which are separated from other groups of birch. The birch sap runs continually all day and night during a comparatively short season, which begins when the soil temperature reaches about 50 degrees.
Farrell’s research will include New York state producers with at least 50 tappable birch trees. The 2015 NNYADP grant will cover the costs of materials. The study will help to better understand some of the unknowns which remain in birch syrup production, including: the optimal tapping time; sap yields per trees; cost of production; and the yield differences when collecting sap via buckets, gravity tubing, or vacuum tubing.
This past June, Paul Smith’s College held the First International Birch Sap and Syrup Conference, which attracted producers from around the world. It included a tasting session, which was open to the public, to raise awareness of the product.
“One of the reasons that we wanted to have this conference right here in northern New York is that we have such an abundant birch resource here in the Adirondacks, with the white birch and the yellow birch,” Farrel said in the North Country Public Radio interview. “Lots of people have the trees and may not have known about the opportunities.”
The region’s maple syrup producers, like Shelton, are beginning to capitalize on birch sap, extending their season, tapping trees already in their sugarbushes, and producing an in-demand product requiring little investment in additional equipment. While birch syrup production in New England is in its infancy, and requires a learning curve, ongoing research and education will help to keep birch syrup production flowing.
Vermont Birch Syrup Company added taps in 2015, increasing their output from 2014, when they tapped several hundred trees. Shelton feels that tapping the birch trees and making the syrup has been successful and profitable. They sell the birch syrup in glass bottles, complete with hand-lettered, artist-designed labels, made from the bark of dead birch trees. With a retail price much higher than that of maple syrup, birch syrup is currently a specialty item, and it is in demand.
For more information visit Vermont Birch Syrup Company, Glover, VT, 802-249-0574; www.vermontbirchsyrupcompany.com .