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Birch Syrup: Maple’s Sassier Cousin From New England

The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse where Lee, N.H., resident David Moore boils down paper birch sap to make birch syrup. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse where Lee, N.H., resident David Moore boils down paper birch sap to make birch syrup. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

As New England’s maple sap started to drip in March, David Moore of The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse in Lee, N.H., counted the days until it would stop flowing. Right about the time the maples are tapped out, Moore collects a less sugary sap from slender, white paper birch trees.

Moore, one of the only known commercial birch syrup producers in New England, says his reddish-brown syrup tastes like a mild, slightly acidic molasses with a hint of raspberry. The viscosity at room temperature is slow, albeit a bit quicker than molasses. Its unique taste makes it well suited as an ice cream topping (Moore’s favorite); a glaze, salad dressing or braising liquid ingredient; and an intriguing baked goods sweetener.

In addition to its uses in the kitchen, birch syrup has high market values that could help maple syrup producers supplement future revenue streams in a sustainable fashion, according to researchers at Cornell and the University of Vermont. Its production relies on many of the techniques currently employed in making maple syrup, and birch trees are in rather good supply in the Northeast.

Birch syrup is not entirely a novelty in North America. Native Americans for centuries used it as an anti-rheumatic. Twentieth-century Alaskans also tapped it to fill gaps in wartime sugar supplies, and birch syrup production has become a cottage industry there. Still, last year’s 5,000 gallons of domestically produced birch syrup were just a drop in the bucket compared with the 3.25 million gallons of maple syrup produced.

Chef Evan Mallett of Black Trumpet bistro in Portsmouth, N.H., says Moore’s syrup has a rich, deep and slightly resinous quality that makes it suitable as a finishing syrup and a glaze for grilled chicken or pork. Mallett’s seasonal menu features brioche Texas toast, a thick slice of house-made bread stuffed with roasted mushrooms and cheese and served with huitlacoche (fungus that grows on ears of corn) butter, candy cap mushroom oil and a few drops of birch syrup.

“I like it on pancakes too, but it’s pretty expensive to slather on,” Mallett said.

The going rate for a quart of birch syrup is $78, compared with $10 for Grade A maple syrup. The selling price is very attractive, said Moore, who last year charged $25 for 8-ounce jars and sold out by the end of May. Moore sells his product at a half dozen locations in New Hampshire and will be taking some mail orders this year if supplies last.

“Making birch syrup takes more energy than making maple syrup,” explained Moore, who collects 100 to 120 gallons of sap (he typically gets about 5 gallons a day from each of his 170 taps) to make one gallon of birch syrup. Maple syrup requires only 40 gallons of sap per gallon of syrup.

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Birch syrup tastes like a mild, slightly acidic molasses with a hint of raspberry. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

Abby van den Berg of the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center said the profitability of birch syrup production in the Northern Forest — the region that stretches from Maine through northern New Hampshire and Vermont into northern New York — in the past has been limited due to the fact that the low sugar content of birch sap (about 1% compared with 2% in maple) means producers need lots of evaporator fuel to concentrate the sap to syrup density.

But she argues that reverse osmosis, a process used in Alaskan birch syrup production that concentrates sugar densities (to 8% or greater) in the sap before it goes into the evaporator mitigates that hurdle. Modern sap collection techniques such as using a vacuum also help to increase the sap collection during the short three- to four-week birch sap season.

Moore has considered using reverse osmosis, but he currently processes sap in a 3- by 12-foot double-panned evaporator inside the wooden sugar shack he built himself. He uses a team of draft horses to help haul the firewood (ash, hickory, maple and oak) needed to fuel the evaporator. The new reverse osmosis machine would require him to run power to the sugarhouse. He estimates adding reverse osmosis would cost $7,000. “It could be a tough sell for me,” Moore said.

Neither van den Berg nor Michael Farrell, director of Cornell Sugar Maple Research & Extension Program’s Uihlein field station in Lake Placid, N.Y., could provide more than anecdotal evidence that maple syrup producers are clamoring to make birch syrup.

At a maple syrup taste test he conducted for maple syrup producers earlier this year, Farrell threw birch syrup into the mix. When he asked for a show of hands from those who liked the taste of New England birch syrup, not one went up. The producers then were offered a taste of birch syrup made with reverse osmosis. “Nearly everyone changed their mind,” Farrell said.

“This altered process gives birch syrup a wider range of flavor that should appeal to more people. They’ve just got to be willing to taste it,” he said.

Chewy Ginger and Birch Syrup Lumberjack Cookies

Yes, birch syrup is expensive, but it adds an interesting twist to these spicy chewy cookies that people won’t place until you tell them. Think of it as money well spent for tea time conversation.

Makes 24 cookies

Ingredients

2¼ cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon mustard powder

½ teaspoon allspice

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

¾ cup unsalted butter (1½ sticks), room temperature

¾ cup packed light brown sugar

1 large egg

½ cup birch syrup

⅓ cup finely diced candied ginger (optional)

Granulated sugar for rolling

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Whisk together flour, baking soda, ground ginger, cinnamon, mustard powder, allspice, salt and black pepper.

3. Beat butter and sugar together in bowl of electric mixer until light and fluffy, 3 minutes. Add egg and birch syrup. Mix to combine well. Stir in dry ingredients. Stir in candied ginger, if using. Refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes.

4. Roll dough into 1½-inch balls and then roll them in the raw sugar. Arrange on the baking sheets and gently flatten them with the bottom of a flat glass. Bake until set and crinkled on top, about 12 minutes.

Let the cookies sit on the baking sheet for 2 minutes and then remove them to a rack to cool completely.

Top photo: The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse where Lee, N.H., resident David Moore boils down paper birch sap to make birch syrup. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige



Zester Daily contributor Christine Burns Rudalevige, based in Brunswick, Maine, is an independent journalist and classically trained home cook working to spread reliable information about the state of food consumption. She writes copy and develops and tests recipes for many media, including Cooking Light, NPR.org's The Salt, Food52, WholeFoodsMarketCooking.com, Portland (Me.) Press-Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In 2013, Rudalevige co-founded with Mollie Sanders, the Family Fish Project, a blog (www.familyfish.net), recipe site and cookbook project designed to help busy families cook and eat more seafood at home. As a chef instructor at Stonewall Kitchen in York, Maine, Rudalevige develops and teaches recreational cooking classes.

23 COMMENTS
  • Bill Flodin 3·20·14

    How interesting! Until your article, I had never heard of birth syrup. I would love to taste it.
    I am in Chicago; how could I do that?

  • bill Flodin 3·20·14

    How interesting. Until your article, I had never heard of birth syrup. I would love to
    taste it. I am in Chicago; how could i do that?

  • Denise Mullen 3·20·14

    Thanks for the article. I drank Birch Beer when I was a child and loved it so this could be a new twist.

  • Christine 3·20·14

    Hi Denise,
    Birch beer is made from from extracted oils found in the bark. It is one of my family’s favorites too! The flavors are similar in that you first get sweet and then its more savory. But I think the birch beer finish is almost spicier whereas the syrup finishes with a resiny, earthy tone.
    Cheers,
    Christine

  • Paul Fahey 3·20·14

    Thanks for the interesting and informative article. It also made me hungry which is the true measure of success for a food writer I would imagine!

  • Tim Greene 3·20·14

    Fascinating story. I bet it would make a great glaze for a pork loin stuffed with dried fruit.
    Do you know of any other tree saps made into syrups?

  • Paul D 3·20·14

    Very interesting article. I, too, had never heard of birch syrup. Several times I have visited the Nebraska Knoll maple sugar house in Stowe, VT that uses reverse osmosis, tho. The owner says it dramatically cut his fuel consumption as well as boil time. Seems like it’d be even more effective with birch since the sugar content of birch sap is so much less than maple. But I’m not the one who has to shell out 7 grand.

  • Nancy Edlin 3·20·14

    Thanks for the article, Christine. We are loyal fans of NH maple syrup. I am eager to share the story and the recipes with friends down south here in PA.

  • Nancy Edlin 3·20·14

    What I really MEANT to say is that even though we are loyal fans of NH maple, we would be very happy to find out more about NH birch syrup.

  • Barb Spenningsby 3·20·14

    Big fan of birch syrup and its uses. Thanks for the great article, can’t wait to try the recipe!

  • Christine 3·20·14

    Hi Tim,
    Chef Evan Mallett of the Black Trumpet in Portsmouth recommends doing just that with birch syrup! Mr. More is also experimenting with Sycamore Syrup. And Mr. Farrell has written a book that talks about Maple, Birch and Black Walnut Syrup making. http://www.amazon.com/The-Sugarmakers-Companion-Integrated-Producing/dp/1603583971
    Thanks for reading and commenting!
    Cheers,
    Christine

  • Kate 3·20·14

    Don’t you remember Dad bringing the birch beer home from the fire station?

  • Jill Thompson 3·20·14

    I found this article very interesting – had no idea there was such a syrup. Would absolutely love to try birch syrup and also sycamore syrup – we are great fans of all syrups and especially like Bragg Farm Vermont Fancy (Maple). Any chance we can get some birch syrup in the UK – do the Crooked Chimney export? Am sure there would be a market for it but fear that having looked at their website there may not be sufficient produced to meet local demand let alone sending it to England….I feel another trip to the US is on the horizon! Thank you Christine for sharing this information – I look forward to reading more of your articles.

  • Christine 3·20·14

    Hi Jill,
    I think Sue and Danny’s visit might just jibe with Crooked Chimney’s production. I will see if I can persuade Connie to buy one less stuffed toy so there is enough room in the suitcase for a bottle of syrup! That said, we always love to see you over here!
    Cheers,
    Christine

  • Christine 3·20·14

    Kate,
    I don’t remember that. We used to get it all the time in PA, but I don’t recall having the Lee Fire Department’s home brew! I wonder if it’s still available.

  • Nicky 3·20·14

    Christine, Nancy kindly shared this fascinating article. I have a group of students researching maple syrup this semester so I will share this with them. At the rate my own children get through maple syrup I will keep birch syrup a secret at home.

  • Christine 3·20·14

    Hi Nikki,
    Thanks for sharing this with your students. I think that Professor van den Berg is particularly interested in the economics of maple syrup in the Northern Forest. Let me know if they need contact info for her.
    Cheers,
    Christine

  • Pamela Ross 3·21·14

    This is a fascinating article, well-written, and full of interesting information. I’ll try out those delicious-sounding cookies.
    Well done, Christine. Pleas write more, and hope to see you in York in the summer!

  • Richard 3·21·14

    Very interesting article and subject. The only birch I have tasted was in a soda .

  • Richard 3·21·14

    Very interesting article and subject. The only birch I have tasted was in a soda . This my first comment.

  • Don 3·21·14

    Fascinating story for one who loves birch beer. I wonder if the production costs in Alaska, with the reverse osmosis technology have made the product more commercially viable?

    The negative in production is the huge amount of wood needed at present; adding that much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere cannot be good.

  • Vickie 3·24·14

    Loved reading this article and others you have written because you not only include information on the product you’re writing about, but also include background history. In addition, you have a way with words that stimulates the senses and makes one want to sample the food item you are describing. I really want to try some birch syrup and that cookie recipe you included! Thanks, Christine. Looking forward to more posts from you.

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