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March/April 2014

The Other Syrup

Why birch is the hot new flavor

Tapped birch tree. Photograph by Nancie Battaglia

In early April, when Mike Farrell hears the first high chirps of spring peepers, that’s his cue to switch from maple to birch. Farrell is director of Cornell University’s Uihlein Forest, in Lake Placid, where he oversees 5,000 sugar-maple taps. And, for three years now, when the sap stops flowing in the ma­ples, he and his staff drill spout holes in 700 birches, drawing off some of the trees’ internal spring thaw and boiling it down into a stout-dark syrup that is nothing like maple syrup.

Slender white paper birch (Betula pa­pyrifera) thrives in the cool climate and short growing season of higher elevations and northern latitudes. Ten thousand years ago it was the first broadleaf tree to seed the Adi­rondacks after the retreat of the glaciers. Now birch is also the hot new thing, full of economic and culinary potential.

In northern Europe and Asia birch sap has long been prized as a spring tonic called “forest drink,” according to Farrell’s new book, The Sugarmaker’s Com­panion: An Integrated Approach to Producing Syrup from Maple, Birch, and Walnut Trees. But birches have gone largely un­tapped in North America until re­cently. Uihlein Forest is one of the larg­est birch-syrup producers in the eastern United States. At its Bear Cub Road sugarhouse, eight-ounce bottles of birch syrup are hot sellers at $20 apiece—the equivalent of $320 per gallon.

“Nobody really bats an eye” at the price, Farrell says. “It’s a novelty.” And the market is not limited to tourists looking for a unique souvenir. Alaska and British Columbia are North America’s largest birch-syrup producers, even exporting some to Europe. On av­erage, Farrell says, a gallon of birch syrup sells for three times the price of maple, and demand exceeds supply.

Farrell believes the incentives are strong for Northeastern maple tappers to get into the birch business. “By taking advantage of the existing infrastructure for maple-syrup production, many sugarmakers could expand their operations,” he says. For 50 years Cornell’s research and extension field station at Uihlein Forest has innovated ways to improve maple production; now it is collaborating with several northern New York sugarmakers to explore birch’s potential as a complementary crop.

Eastern sugarbush owners can use the same equipment they use to collect maple sap—with the exception of galvanized buckets, spiles and collection tanks, which can be corroded by the betulinic acid in birch sap. Several North Country sugarmakers who use vacuum tubing to gather maple sap have begun to try it on birch, though it must be cleaned in between the maple and birch runs to remove any bacteria. Farrell suggests it might be easier to use a separate line system for birch altogether. Also, since most Adi­ron­dack forests contain fewer birches than maples, a smaller evaporator pan may be necessary to boil a smaller batch of sap.

Sap flow in maples is triggered by a nar­­row cycle of warm days and cold nights that usually falls in March in the Adirondacks, but birch flow is driven by steady root pressure that develops once soil warms to about 50 degrees. This is not just in white birches; yellow and black birches may be tapped as well. All three species run almost continuously over several weeks, until their leaves pop open.

The sugar content of birch water is less than one percent, or roughly half the content of raw maple, which partly explains why few people have bothered to make syrup from birch. With the wood-fired methods of the traditional sugarhouse, birch sap requires long, slow boiling. Reverse osmosis has changed all that, making large-scale birch production possible. The membrane technology concentrates sap and increases its sugar ratio by removing 80 to 90 percent of the water before it even hits the boiling pan. Reverse osmosis is widespread among commercial sugarmakers and is catching on among smal­ler-scale producers as smaller units be­come more affordable.

Another reason birch syrup has been obscure until lately might be its otherness. “If you give it to someone who has maple on their mind, you usually get a very interesting response,” says Sam Caldwell, who makes Bixby’s Best syrup in Bolton Landing.

“It’s not pancake syrup,” says David Hunt, former executive chef at Generations Res­taurant, on Lake Placid’s Main Street, as he drizzles birch syrup over a still-sizzling rare bison burger from Edgley Farms, in nearby Vermont­ville. “It has an iron-y taste.… I find if you use it subtly it imparts a great uma­mi flavor.”

Hunt then dips a cow’s-milk feta from North Country Creamery, in Keese­­ville, into a ramekin of what resembles mo­tor oil and encourages a bite. “Isn’t that nice?” he asks. It is. The bright saltiness of the cheese and the pure earthy sweetness of the birch layer in harmony. If you scratch the twig of a yellow or black birch, the bark releases a wintergreen fragrance, but the syrup lacks this cool tinge. I find myself describing it by what it is not: not maple, not wintergreen, not birch beer. It has more in common with molasses. Hunt’s iron characterization comes closest, and he also no­tices a raspberry aroma when the sap is boiling. He continues to ex­plore the flavor’s possibilities, mixing it in salad dressings and even in a killer birch eggnog, available seasonally at Generations’ bar.

Sugarmakers Farrell and Caldwell both use birch at home, mostly in marinades. But Caldwell adds, “It makes a really interesting substitute for triple sec in a margarita. Give it a shot.”

Generations Restaurant (518-837-5052), in Lake Placid, will of­fer a birch sap­–boiling demonstration and tasting on April 20.

Michael Farrell’s book, The Sugarmaker’s Companion: An Integrated Approach to Producing Syrup from Maple, Birch, and Walnut Trees (Chelsea Green, 2013), is available at www.adirondacklifestore.com.

Chef David Hunt’s Birch Syrup Vinaigrette

6 oz. birch syrup

2 oz. Dijon mustard

2 oz. lemon juice or rhubarb concentrate

4 egg yolks

12 oz. salad oil

Chef Hunt says, “Combine the first four ingredients in food processor. Add oil slowly while mixing to make an emulsion. You now have a base vinaigrette, I have added vanilla extract or sweet ginger from Rehoboth Farmstead, in Peru, NY, or you could also add hot chilis.”