FAIRBANKS — Q: Do you know anything about tapping birch trees for syrup? When is the best time to do it?
A: A few years ago I was surfing Craigslist and came across a help wanted ad for a remote birch tapping operation on a “Quiet Lake, where we live part-time and have produced our birch syrup for 20 years. (It) is a small lake nestled in the center of Alaska’s Susitna Valley, the vast river valley extending south of the Alaska Range.”
I was definitely intrigued and read on, dreaming I could steal away to go tap trees for a month or two. What a sweet way to usher in spring! I found out that Kahiltna Birchworks, the placer of the “sap sucker” help wanted ad, is a family run business and Alaska’s largest producer of pure Alaska birch syrup. You can only get to their homestead where the birch sap is collected by snowmachine or float plane. Talk about extreme birch tapping! Very cool. I naturally thought of this company to get more information about tapping birch trees, so here are some facts from their website:
“Birch Syrup is a truly unique flavor from Alaska’s forests — and quite rare. At this time there is little commercial production of birch syrup anywhere else in the world. Birch syrup in Alaska is produced by collecting the sap from the paper birch and evaporating it to syrup. It takes an average of 100 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of birch syrup. Maple syrup, by comparison, averages 40:1.
“The sap, containing only 1-1.5 percent sugar, looks and tastes much like water right out of the tree. Concentrating the sugar to 67 percent by evaporation gives the syrup its color and distinctive flavor. The time to tap Alaska paper birch is when the sap rises in early April. The season will last 2-3 weeks, until the trees bud. Production will vary from season to season. In 2004 each tree produced approximately 3/4 gallon of sap/tree/day. We tapped 2,400 trees, collected 43,500 gallons of sap and produced a total of 450 gallons of pure birch syrup. Tapping the trees does not injure them as it will take only 10-15 percent of the total sap production of the tree. One tap per tree limit; and each tree is given a two year rest between tapings. Each 7/16-inch hole is plugged at the end of the season to prevent injury to the tree. To produce a higher quality syrup and save on time and fuel, we run our sap through a reverse osmosis machine which removes 70 percent of the water before evaporation begins. This concentrates the sugar to approximately 5 percent. Concentration to 67 percent sugar is completed in a wood-fired evaporator.
“Birch syrup is distinctive in flavor and versatile. It has a rich, spicy-sweet flavor that reminds people of flavors from their past — sorghum, horehound candy, different varieties of honey. It is wonderful on ice cream, in milkshakes and coffee, and adds a robust sweetness to pancakes and waffles.
First run is produced within the first few days of the harvest. The lightest and sweetest of the season, it is always limited in supply. Its flavor, sweetness, and color vary from year to year like fine wine, and depend very much on when the sap run begins, and the weather at the time of harvest. Our “mid-run” birch syrup possesses a more complex spicy/sweetness and is somewhat darker and deeper in flavor than our first-run syrup.”
Check out Kahiltna Birchworks at alaskabirchsyrup.com to see their products and learn more about their birch tapping operation. Owner Michael East is also the current president of the Alaska Birch Syrupmakers’ Association founded in 1993, which has published a PDF of “Best Practices for Producing Quality Birch Syrup.” The link is huge, so I won’t publish it here, but can be found if you Google it.
Susan and Daniel Humphrey of the Chilkat Valley in Haines also run a birch sap collecting operation called Birch Boy Products. They have an impressive collection of educational material on their website for the prospective birch tapper in you. Visit their site at birchboy.com.
I liked this quote I found on their website: “The handful of Alaskan birch sugarmakers are motivated by a love of the land, good forestry, good cooking and good eating. Alaska’s got the world’s largest stand of birch in the world, but birch syrup production will probably never be measured in tens of thousands of gallons made or millions of dollars earned. It will always be small because it’s so labor intensive. The only rewards are the elegance and usefulness of the syrup itself, and the fun of working in your own woods.”
If you’re looking for birch tapping supplies, check Alaska Feed on College Road.
Brookelyn Bellinger is an independent filmmaker and author of the book “The Frozen Toe Guide to Real Alaskan Livin’.” Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.