ALGOMA – A new product is soaring in popularity in southern Ontario and northern Canada but not in Algoma.
Birch syrup was listed in the Top 10 products at Canada’s International Food Trade Show in 2011 and, then, the Ontario Liquor Board released a new recipe for oven pancakes with wild blueberries and birch syrup over the winter. Producers across the province say they can’t keep up with sales and retailers report they were sold out before the season started. However, only one local producer expressed any interest in alternative tree syrups.
With different micro nutrients and sugars, birch syrup does not taste or smell like maple syrup but, in taste tests, people report they like it as well. The product is predicted to be an addition and not compete with the established $250 million maple syrup industry as it retails at three times the price of maple syrup.
“I like it, but you have in your mind it must be like maple. It isn’t,” Linda Grimo, at Grimo Nursery.
Birch syrup is not a new product. The sap is a traditional native drink and the syrup has been popular in Europe as long as there are records, and it is frequently used as a medicine. It is also used in wine and beer manufacture.
“It returned to Alaska about 30 years ago, spread to the Yukon and then south where the demand from chefs is increasing its usage while production is still limited,” said Jonathan Forbes, of Forbes Wild Foods.
Wally Macleod, of Poplar Dale, tried making birch syrup, once. He experienced a level of experimentation to perfect his product as best practice guidelines for alternative tree syrups do not exist.
“It tasted a bit like molasses,” he said.
“It is dark. We did it for fun. It is about getting out and appreciating the forest.”
Birch syrup is “more Canadian” than maple, said Dave Challen, of Boreal Birch Syrup in Thunder Bay. Sugar maple has limited distribution but, “Birch (Betula) grows in all the provinces and two territories.”
Kathy Beilke, of Wagram Springs Farms, said her operation started making golden birch syrup only after the family sold their maple lot, leaving 10 acres of birch dominated bush.
“The kid’s really liked it,” she said.
Birch sap run starts just as the maple run is finishing. Allowing producers to manufacture both products with the same evaporator. Tapping for more than one type of syrup encourages forest diversity and forest health. Birch also grows in areas too cold for sugar maples allowing northern farms to also have an early spring cash crop.
“It is great for barbecue sauces, a marinade, on fish. It is a separate industry,” said Todd Leuty, an agroforestry specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture. “Maple syrup contains sucrose. Birch syrup has glucose and fructose. The different sugars cook differently. Reverse osmosis equipment really helps decrease the chance of sugar burn with birch syrup.”
There is a catch. Challen cautions, “You have to love the work.”
Macleod confirms, “It is more work but I might try it again this year. Once your try it, you try it again.”
Challen said birch trees produce sap in greater volumes then maple often filling 12- or even 20-litre pails in 24 hours while the sugar percentage is significantly lower than sugar maple. The high water volume means higher expenses in the evaporation or separation process.
“We are considering going to lines,” Challen said. “There are tests in Alaska looking at moose damage and it is working out. However, we enjoyed hiring friends and neighbours. Even if it was only seasonal employment. At least, we could provide profitable work.”
Leuty said fatigue also plays a role.
“A lot of maple syrup producers are just too tired at the end of the maple season for the new product.”