Abby van den Berg, of the Proctor Maple Research Center, gets ready to tap a birch tree. Photo by Cheryl Dorschner.
In Leicester, Vermont, up a rutted driveway off Route 7, Kevin New cobbled together a sugarhouse out of an old goat barn and plywood. He boiled a lot of sap last spring, long after most sugarhouses had gone dormant. In fact, he boiled almost up until the leaves came out. For his labors, he points to a neat double row of mason jars he has for sale along the back window of his shack. They’re filled with rich, red, birch syrup.
Yes, birch syrup.
New is part of a new wave of sugarmakers who are adding birch trees to their sugarbush portfolio. There’s enough promise in the pursuit that Cornell’s Sugar Maple Research and Extension Program and the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center have begun doing experiments to find out how much sap – and sugar – birch trees produce.
A handful of producers have been making birch syrup for decades in Alaska, Canada, and Russia, but researchers want to determine whether, using modern maple syrup equipment like vacuum tubing and reverse osmosis machines, birch syrup can be profitable in New England.
The water content of birch sap is a challenge. Typically, 40 to 60 gallons of maple sap yield one gallon of syrup. This spring, New averaged 116 gallons of birch sap to make one gallon of syrup, which means a lot of time in the sugarhouse, and, for traditional sugarmakers, a mighty big stack of cordwood. Birch sap flows more slowly from the tree than maple sap does, and it’s higher in fructose than maple sap, which means it scorches more easily when boiled.
The reward is in the price. One major Alaskan producer gets $328 a gallon. Last year, David Moore, a birch syrup producer in Lee, New Hampshire, charged $20 for an eight-ounce glass bottle. This year, he’s upped his price to $25 because his season was cut short by 80°F temperatures.
Maple syrup producers rely on a cycle of frosty nights and warmer days to create stem pressure in a maple tree. Birch sap is different in that root pressure drives a sap run. Birch sugaring season, then, occurs immediately after maple season, in that brief window after the snow has gone and the soil has dried out, but before leaves have fully emerged.
“Most years, when I’m putting in my birch taps, my neighbors are pulling out their maple taps,” Moore said.
It’s not hard to imagine that other ambitious producers will find birch syrup attractive. They could wind down their traditional six- or eight-week maple season, clean their gear, and head right into birch for another round of two to three weeks.
Now you may be asking yourself the same question I was: “What’s the stuff taste like?” Before you go hunting for a jar of birch syrup and start whipping up your favorite buttermilk batter, consider this: “It’s kind of a waste to put it on pancakes,” said one of Moore’s best customers, Evan Mallett.
Mallett’s the chef at Black Trumpet Bistro in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Still, his warning doesn’t mean birch syrup isn’t tasty. “I’ve thought of myriad applications for it,” he said.
Mallett calls it a “dark flavor” and treats it a bit like molasses. His most recent incarnation is a raisin mostarda: a traditional northern Italian condiment that he likes to serve with cheese to his customers. “The roundness and molasses effect of the birch syrup is great for neutralizing the sharpness of the mustard seed,” he explained.
“It’s not maple,” said New. Instead, he calls birch syrup spicy and fruity. “Some people call it tangy.”
Bob Rook, the owner of Emack and Bolio’s ice cream in Boston, thinks birch syrup is delicious. Last year, he made a 20-gallon batch of birch-walnut ice cream, and his customers liked it.
“For my taste buds, it was more intense and better in flavor than maple,” Rook said. “The problem with birch syrup is that it’s very, very expensive.” If more maple syrup producers hear his message, the laws of syrup supply and ice cream demand might just get the price down to where he’d churn another batch.
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