LEICESTER — It was one of very few “Maple Open House” signs seen over the annual March weekend during which Vermont sugarhouses invite in the general public, but the Sweet Success Sugar Shack is looking in a new direction.
A sudden warm-up in temperatures in late March brought a quick and then painful end to the annual maple sap run this year, leaving area sugarmakers with below-average sap supplies.
“We started three weeks early and ended four weeks early,” said sugarmaker Robert Cole. The little Sweet Success sugaring hut didn’t see many customers during the rainy Maple Open House weekend, but the place was bustling with optimism and excitement. And there was plenty of sap on the boil — birch sap, that is.
Cole and business partner Kevin New are looking to birch sap to make up the difference during seasons like this when maple sugaring falls short.
“It was such nice weather and the season was so short, we figured right now was the time,” New explained.
Birch syrup is boiled down the same way maple sap is boiled using reverse osmosis (taking the water out). But with birch sap boiling produces a thick, dark brown syrup similar to molasses. It has a subtle, fruity, tangy taste and is highly prized by gourmet chefs for sauces and glazes.
The predominant, naturally occurring sugar in birch syrup is fructose, while maple sap contains primarily sucrose. Due to its chemical structure, fructose is more easily digested and assimilated by the human body. Fructose also has the lowest glycemic index of all sugars and therefore can be the most suitable sugar for use, in small quantities, by diabetics. Birch syrup is high in vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, potassium, manganese, thiamin and calcium.
Birch sap runs 10 times faster than maple, New said, to the point where he and Cole could barely empty the buckets on their 30 birch taps fast enough. But all of that sap is necessary, because it also takes 100 gallons of birch sap to make one gallon of birch syrup. By comparison, it takes around 40 gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.
Also, there’s an accessibility issue.
“You don’t have birch bushes the way you have maple sugarbushes,” New said, referring to the stands of maple trees that constitute a sugar bush.
Birches are much more spread out, making a sugarmaker work harder to retrieve all of that sap.
The payoff is that birch syrup can fetch anywhere from $180- $312 a gallon, New said, while maple syrup brings in $50-$60 a gallon.
The concept of birch syrup has been around for years, though it hasn’t caught on much in Vermont. In Alaska, making birch syrup has been a cherished tradition since the mid 1900s, the way maple sugaring has become a trademark of the Green Mountain State. In fact, New has been in working with Kahiltna Birchworks in Palmer, Alaska, to learn the birch sugaring basics.
But there are only a handful of birch syrup producers in Alaska. In 2004, the state produced only about 1,500 gallons, which is why the prices are so high.
In addition, New also contacted the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Lab in Underhill for information and assistance. Research Assistant Professor Abby van den Berg said New had no idea how timely his phone call was. The lab recently received a Northeastern States Research Cooperative grant to study the economic viability of birch syrup production in the Northeast.
“We’re basically looking at birch sap yields and doing the math to see if tapping and making birch syrup is a profitable venture,” van den Berg said. “We want to get information that is useful to people before they put a lot of time and money into it.”
She added that the lab is also researching the sap runs for birch versus maple, but added that this year that research is impossible because of the unusually warm and short run.
“We wanted to investigate how much of an overlap there is but we can’t because this has been such a crazy year,” she said. “Normally, there is about a week of overlap. Birch sap usually starts running around the first week in April.”
But it’s sugaring seasons like this last one that make adding another option for producers all the more important.
“We want to see whether it makes economic sense for producers in the Northeast to make birch syrup,” van den Berg said. “I really think it’s another tool in the toolbox to help producers make a good living. This promotes diversity, using what we already have, so it’s almost a no-brainer, if it makes economic sense.”
Legally, New said he can’t sell his Sweet Success birch syrup until it’s approved by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, so right now he’s giving away samples to see what people think of this new syrup.
“It’s quite interesting to be doing this right now,” New said excitedly. “This is cutting-edge sugaring, right here.”