From Maple To Birch

Bert & Kathy Beilke with Berts 96 yr old mother

When she was seven Kathy Poljanski didn’t know a birch from a butternut. But she was raised on a farm and farm kids seem to learn things through osmosis, especially when their parents are good teachers.

Around the corner on the Kenilworth Sideroad Bert Beilke was growing up on a family farm with a large maple bush. At an early age young Beilke could be found right in the thick of things helping with the spring harvest in the sugar bush.

As fairy tale stories go, these two kids went to the same school, chummed together, and eventually married. Bert and Kathy are both naturalists and enjoy educating themselves about the outdoors and utilizing what nature has to offer. They purchased a farm close to his parents so everyone could work together.

Fast forward several years – three sons and a daughter have been added to the mix. They garden, raise chickens, press their own cider, and are avid fishing and hunting enthusiasts. Throughout the 1990s they tapped approximately 275 maple trees in “grampa’s” sugar bush, and bottled and sold commercially for six years. Unfortunately that came to a halt when declining health forced the senior Beilke to sell that portion of his farm.

There wasn’t a maple bush on Bert’s own farm but in the lowlands there is a 50-acre stand of yellow birch trees. Common sense and research told them this was not an opportunity to lie idle. Surprisingly enough, when thoroughly studied, one finds that native people knew the benefits of birch but it seems to have become overshadowed by the sweetness of maple syrup.

Birch water is pure birch tree sap. It’s a 100% natural drink that people in Europe have been enjoying for centuries. Birch is a natural detox product which stimulates the cleansing systems of the kidney and liver functions, and helps to eliminate toxins from the body. Birch contains micro-nutrients which are said to strengthen the immune system, lower cholesterol, and assist with weight loss. It’s also from the birch tree that the healthful Chaga mushroom grows.

With all that information at hand it was an easy decision for the Beilke’s to look to their yellow birch bush for a new adventure. One might think it would be a simple transition from maple sap collection to birch but although the mechanics might be similar, the equipment isn’t. Birch does not like aluminum, lead or tin so the old collection utensils couldn’t be used. They had to invest in plastic taps, pails and lines, but were able to continue with some of the stainless steel pans and evaporators.

The first trial sap run was in April of 2013. There are very few birch producers and those who are in the business tap primarily white birch. Sap runs later in the spring than maple as it prefers slightly warmer weather. A normal season lasts about 18 days usually beginning mid-April. Birch sap has a 120:1 water to sugar ratio while maple is 40:1. Another difference is that while maple sap is boiled at high temperatures for a short time, birch sap is heated at moderate temperatures for a longer duration. Maple sap is mostly sucrose sugar while birch is a combination of fructose and glucose. As a result birch is better on the diabetic plate.

The heating process takes 80 to 130 litres of sap to boil down to one litre of syrup. After the first run was processed the resulting syrup was found to be entirely different to Maple syrup. Kathy describes the taste as molasses and caramel with a touch of balsamic. It has a complex flavor unlike the sweetness of maple syrup. Not exactly sure how it should taste, Bert ordered some syrup from Quebec for comparison. They were pleasantly surprised to find that they liked their own better.

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