Before consumers sample a small spoon of birch syrup, Kathy Beilke usually warns the tester that it doesn’t taste anything like maple syrup.
Still, when I taste the sample, I am surprised at the complex flavour. Despite the warning, my head is anticipating sweetness so my mouth is surprised by the multiple sensations I might describe as creamy, earthy and exotic with a medicinal edge.
Kathy describes it as “molasses and caramel with a little bit of balsamic.”
Birch syrup is like a complex red wine, picking up the flavours of the moist soils birch trees prefer to grow in and the warmer spring weather when the sap runs.
At a price point of $90 per litre, it also clear why Kathy, along with husband Bert, say this isn’t a syrup you “pour over your pancakes.”
Birch syrup is a “foodie” syrup, delicious as an ingredient in salad dressings or barbeque sauces. Tantalizing, says Kathy, when lightly poured over ice cream or used as a glaze on pork or salmon.
“The majority of people like it,” says Kathy. “If they’ve never tried birch syrup before they find it an intense new flavour. Then they try to associate it with other flavours.”
Some connect it with medicinal flavours as I did. Others pinpoint the caramel flavour. While it can be used as is on foods, birch syrup really comes into its own as an ingredient with its ability to add sweet or savoury to dressings and sauces.
Think of adding it to sauteed mushrooms or caramelized onions; as a glaze for salmon, scallops, pork, wild game, duck and root vegetables. In desserts, it can be used in a cake mix, as an extract to replace vanilla or molasses, combined with whipped cream or drizzled over vanilla ice cream, says Kathy.
It’s clear Kathy and Bert enjoy watching reactions to their unique product. While birch syrup isn’t a new product in itself, there are just a handful of producers in southwestern Ontario.
The Beilkes might not have been producers themselves if Bert’s father had not sold the family farm where Bert happily made maple syrup in a traditional sugar shack, tapping approximately 275 trees.
“I’ve been fascinated with making syrup since I was 10 years old,” says Bert, a cash cropper and equipment operator. He tapped his dad’s bush throughout the 1990s and sold maple syrup commercially for about six years. The farm wassold in sections between 2010 and 2013 eliminating his opportunity to continue the process.
“So we looked at our own woodlot and saw it contained a lot of birch trees. I started researching the process of making birch syrup,” says Bert.
It turns out a fair number of producers made birch syrup out of white birch trees but the Beilkes had a bushlot full of yellow birch trees. Turns out, yellow birch syrup is a “connoisseur product” so they experimented that first year with a small volume of birch syrup.
“We also ordered some birch syrup in from Quebec to compare how ours tasted and we thought ours was quite a bit better,” laughs Bert.
“Ours was slightly sweeter on the front note so we were pleasantly surprised.”
The next step was to look into production and marketing. They found food shows like Feast of Fields in Wellington County an ideal place to market their product.
In 2014 they produced 30 litres of birch syrup and met a food broker at a show who added their Wagram Springs golden birch tree products to his lineup to supply chefs and restaurateurs, including the well-known Canoe restaurant in Toronto.
In 2015 they purchased a reverse osmosis machine and an Argo to traverse the wet bush. Production rose to 70 litres on 130 tapped trees and they got a foothold into the retail market with shelf space in a chain of whole food stores.
This year, they expanded to 200 trees, about two-thirds of the potential in their 50-acre bush and installed a gravity-flow tubing system to collection sites.
It’s certainly nothing like maple syrup even though the syrup-making process is the same. There are so
many differences that start right from the source.
The birch syrup from Kathy and her husband Bert’s Wagram Springs Farm is made from yellow birch trees, a hardwood that grows across southern and central Ontario and into northern parts of the province. Like other birch, it likes a moist environment. Yellow birch is a medium-sized tree — the largest of the birches that are native to Ontario. It has thin, shiny, reddish-brown bark when young, becoming dull yellow with age, and darkening to bronze coloured when mature. It grows slowly and lives about 150 years. Yellow birch trees have deep yellowish-green leaves, oval and usually between eight and 11 centimetres long.
Birch trees run sap a little later in the season compared to maples. They like warmer weather and this year, the sap run began April 14 and wrapped up on May 3. A typical season lasts about 18 days.
In this warmer weather, the sap is more volatile and needs to be processed immediately. “Birch sap contains more amino acids so I treat it like milk. It will sour if left sitting,” explains Bert.
One of the critical differences between maple and birch trees is the sugar-to-water ratio. Birch sap is 120:1 water to sugar while maple sap is 40:1. It takes 80 to 130 litres of birch sap to make one litre of syrup. Birch sap is boiled for a longer period of time at a moderate temperature until it turns to syrup compared to maple sap, which is boiled at a high temperature for a shorter period of time.
Also, the sugar content is different. Maple sap is comprised of mostly sucrose sugar while birch sap is a combination of fructose and glucose.
“Birch syrup doesn’t crystallize like maple syrup so it’s well-suited for use as a caramel,” says Kathy, offering a sample. This taste-test is sweet and very, very smooth.
This year, the couple received results from a product development project they undertook with students at the University of Guelph. One of the potential products was birch sap as an energy drink.
Another sample! This one is refreshing and with the addition of wild berry natural extract, has a mild fruity taste without a heavy sugar feel. It’s still in the marketing stage but Kathy expects to sell bottle of birch sap for $4.50 once its ready. Birch sap has traditionally been used as a spring tonic to cleanse the kidneys and liver. It’s also great to clear up skin conditions and cleanse hair, adds Kathy.
In terms of health, Bert says birch syrup is as high in antioxidants as blueberries. It’s more diabetic friendly than maple sugar because of the different sucrose variety, and it’s high in manganese and minerals.
It is also costly.
A 50 ml bottle sells for $12, 100 ml for $24 and 250 ml for $40. Despite its price, the Beilkes sell out of product every year. It fits in with current trends to eat local, eat natural and for foodies eager to try new foods.
The couple plans to ride this trend and hope to leave their full-time jobs to produce and market birch syrup full time. It fits into their lifestyle of growing and harvesting their own foods. They garden and raise chickens. They also press their own cider, hunt and fish.
As to the business, they’d like to form a cooperative of birch syrup producers by either purchasing sap directly from other bushlot owners and processing it themselves, or using their growing marketing skills and connections to sell other producers’ syrup under the Wagram brand.
With more producers, they could launch into the industrial market.
Currently, Wagram Spring markets birch sap water, caramels and birch syrup.
The next product they are working on developing is birch tree tea.
They have made a five-year plan and hope to be making six-figures from their birch syrup enterprise at the end of those five years.
“If other producers come on board, we think we can become one of the biggest producer/marketers in Ontario,” says Bert.
However, they also hope to maintain their family farm outlook as a place to raise family, animals and vegetables in harmony with their natural surroundings.