By Brandi Cowen
Each spring, tree tappers armed with spigots and buckets collect litre after litre of clear, thin birch tree sap.
Each spring, tree tappers armed with spigots and buckets collect litre after litre of clear, thin birch tree sap. The sap is carted off to sugarshacks across the country, where it is transformed into a locally produced, seasonal ingredient gaining celebrity in the food world.
| The sap in these birch trees will begin to flow anywhere from mid-March through to early May.|
Last June, Sainte-Rita, Que.-based Érablière Escuminac’s birch syrup won a SIAL Canada Trends & Innovation Award. SIAL Canada also highlighted the syrup in a roundup of products that are positioned to meet the big food trends of the future, noting it as a “natural and risk-free” product. Birch syrup is getting nods in the media too. It made the Toronto Sun’s list of food trends to watch in 2012, and has been featured in Canadian Living magazine, and on the TV show CityLine.
“There are many more orders because our syrup has appeared on many television shows,” says Érablière Escuminac’s Miriam Guignard. At the moment, the company is tapping just 6,000 of its 25,000 trees. In the next few years, she expects production will ramp up. Keeping up with demand in Érablière Escuminac’s existing Quebec and Ontario markets and new markets opening up in western Canada and the United States will be a big job that’s poised to get even bigger as the syrup’s rich notes of caramel, molasses and spice win over more devoted foodie fans.
A taste of spring
Birch sap flows for a brief, two- to four-week period each spring, when warm daytime temperatures begin to thaw the frozen sap stored up in the tree’s roots throughout the winter. As the sap thaws, it is drawn up into the tree, providing the nutrients needed to bud and grow new leaves. Once the sap starts to flow, the tree can be tapped just like a maple tree. A spout is inserted into the tree trunk and buckets or bags are hung to collect the sap. Some larger operations may use a network of plastic tubing to collect sap, as larger maple syrup producers do.
The birch-tapping season typically starts after the maple season wraps up and lasts two to three weeks. In Alaska, where most of the world’s birch syrup is tapped, production tends to start in late March or early April. Quebec’s Érablière Escuminac usually does their tapping at the end of April.
Elsewhere in Canada, producers ranging across the Yukon, British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario may tap their trees from mid-March through early May.
After collection, the sap is poured into an evaporator, where as much as 99 per cent of the water is boiled off, leaving an amber concentrate rich in natural sugars. The evaporator can run at temperatures reaching a scorching 93 C (200 F). This process must be carefully monitored from start to finish. Birch sap contains mostly fructose and glucose, simple sugars that burn at a much lower temperature than the more complex sucrose that gives maple syrup its sweetness. Birch syrup producers must allow the fructose in their syrup to caramelize, giving the finished product its rich, caramel flavour, without scorching this delicate sugar.
Cooking up a single litre of birch syrup can take anywhere from 80 to 100 litres of sap. Early in the season, before much of the sap has a chance to thaw, it may take up to 130 litres of sap to make one litre of syrup. In comparison, it takes between 20 and 40 litres of maple sap to yield one litre of syrup. Sap must be processed the day it is collected. Micro-organisms start feeding off nutrients in the sap as soon as it leaves the tree, quickly degrading quality. If left too long, these micro-organisms can lead to off flavours in the finished syrup. This limits a producer’s ability to ramp up production. An evaporator system can only process so much sap in a 24-hour period; investing in more machinery also requires paying additional labour costs, as more hands are needed to keep the evaporators stocked with sap. This high-input, low-output production method drives up the price of a product already experiencing demand that far exceeds available supplies. Prices for birch syrup can reach as high as $100 per litre.
To cater to customers at a lower price point, some producers also offer bottles blending birch with other syrups. Uncle Berwyn’s Yukon Birch Syrup, located near Dawson City, Yukon, offers four varieties of syrup: a pure version made with 100 per cent birch syrup, a birch syrup and raw sugar blend, a birch syrup and sugarcane syrup blend, and an “all-Canadian” blend of birch and maple syrups. Boreal Birch Syrup in Thunder Bay, Ont., also complements its pure syrup with a birch and maple blend, as well as a late-season syrup sweetened with fructose.
Although the exact makeup of birch syrup varies depending on where and when the sap is collected, it is generally rich in minerals. A two-tablespoon serving contains more than half of an adult’s dailyrecommended intake of manganese and thiamin recommended for adults. Birch syrup can also deliver smaller doses of riboflavin, calcium, copper, magnesium and zinc.
In some circles, birch syrup is considered a great natural sweetener for diabetic baking. The syrup consists mainly of fructose – the lowest scoring sugar on the glycemic index (GI). The body digests low GI foods slowly, resulting in gradual changes in blood sugar levels. However, given its premium price, birch syrup isn’t likely to become a mainstream alternative sweetener, as honey has.
Today’s consumers are hungry for foods that reflect local and seasonal realities. Birch syrup fits the bill on both fronts, delivering rich flavours that can differentiate your products from the competition.
|A sweet side note|
There are several varieties of birch tree that can be tapped for syrup production. In the Yukon, Alaska and parts of Russia, most syrup is made from paper birch or Alaska birch trees. Kenai and Western paper birch varieties account for smaller quantities of syrup produced in these areas. Érablière Escuminac in Saint-Rita, Que., taps yellow birch trees for their sap.
The sugar content of the sap varies from one birch variety to the next. As a result, it takes many more litres of Western paper birch sap to make a litre of syrup than it would take if using a sweeter sap, such as Alaska birch.