I wandered into a shop in Talkeetna, a town of a few hundred souls in the interior of south central Alaskan, where I discovered an assortment of small plastic jugs with a strange and rare substance offered for sale: birch syrup. I’d never heard of this particular agricultural product before. Sure, I’ve consumed more than my share of maple syrup over the years but I’d lived my entire life without running across birch syrup. Is it genuine? Does it actually come from a birch tree? And why does it command such an eye-popping price?
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The phenomenon is real. Birch, like Maple, produces a sugary sap that can be reduced into a syrup through the removal of nearly all of its water content. It’s usually done by a combination of reverse osmosis and evaporation through boiling.
Talkeetna sits at the northern edge of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, which I learned later is the epicenter of the commercial production of birch syrup. The entire worldwide yield equals maybe 1,000 – 1,500 gallons (~5,000 liters) per year, with the vast majority coming from the hands of hardworking farmers and homesteaders in the Mat-Su.
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons, released to the Public Domain
The Alaska Birch, a variety of Paper Birch, is the source for most of the sap for commercially-produced syrup. It ranges widely from the Boreal forests of central Alaska into Canada’s Yukon, Northwest Territories, and down into the Prairie Provinces. Sap harvesting could take place in all of these places theoretically but it hasn’t caught-on in any meaningful way except in Alaska.
This is a maple tree but birch trees are tapped similarly
There are valid reasons for the scarcity of birch syrup. They all combine to form a common theme: it’s darn difficult to produce.
- A single gallon of birch syrup requires the evaporation of about a hundred gallons of raw birch sap. Contrast that with maple syrup which requires about forty gallons for the same result.
- The tapping window, the period when sap flows freely through the trunks, is much shorter than for maple. Harvesters, or sap-suckers, have only two or three weeks to get the job done.
- The root and trunk pressure in birch trees is lower than maple too, making it even more difficult to extract the sap.
A friend of my wife’s family in south-central Wisconsin makes his own maple syrup on a scale larger than a hobby but smaller than a business. That’s where I took the photograph of the tapped tree, above. I’ve seen first-hand how the operation works and it’s an amazingly labor intensive endeavor. I can’t imagine how much effort it would take for someone to produce any meaningful amount of the even more difficult birch syrup.
A birch tree will only produce about 0.75 gallons of sap per day, for maybe 20 days. Lets do some quick math: a tree will produce perhaps 15 gallons of sap a year, so it takes nearly seven mature trees to create enough sap for only a single gallon of syrup under ideal conditions! There’s an interesting article in the Anchorage Daily News if you want to know more about the harvesting and production of this rare treat.
Is there any wonder that a quart of the stuff sells for $74 and a 4 ounce bottle for $11? Granted, 2010 was a low sugar year, but I’d still feel guilty about pouring something that valuable onto a waffle or a pancake. It’s liquid gold.
Incidentally other varieties of paper birch trees could be used for similar purposes including those that are native to the New England region of the United States. The online magazine, Heart of New England, speculates that there’s no incentive quite simply because sugar maples grow there ubiquitously and it requires much less time and effort than birch. In Alaska, on the other hand, they only have birch. It’s birch or nothing.
I didn’t purchase any birch syrup on my trip through Talkeetna. If I were to repeat my trip however, knowing what I’ve since learned, I’d at least get one of the small bottles. It’s supposed to have a unique flavor that’s quite a bit different than maple. However I’d be glad to give it a review if anyone in the birch syrup community stumbles across this blog and wants to send me a sample.
Right. Nobody ever takes me up on these offers.