Birch trees are more than just a lovely, ghostly flora growing throughout Maine’s forests. They also produce a scrumptious sap that can be sipped or simmered into syrup.
Michael Romanyshyn, owner of Temple Tappers in Temple, is the largest — and, currently, only — commercial birch syrup producer in Maine. He started tapping birch trees and producing syrup about nine years ago, after he learned about it while traveling as a puppeteer through eastern Europe where birch sap and syrup is already popular.
“Our farm has a really nice grove of birch trees,” Romanyshyn said. “I was thinking about that as a possibility for us to help support being [in Maine]. We got interested not because we were maple producers. We just have a lot of birch trees.”
Max Couture, owner of Road’s End Farm in Canton, started experimenting with birch tree tapping and making birch syrup last year.
“I’ve been doing maple my whole life,” Couture said. “It’s actually pretty straightforward to transition to birch from maple as long as you have access to trees. It’s not a new thing, but it’s a new thing for Maine.”
The benefits of tapping birch trees
Making birch syrup has many benefits, for both maple producers, farmers with birch trees on their property looking to diversify or curious hobbyists who want to expand their tree tapping horizons.
As a maple producer, Couture said that what attracted him to it was that he could use most of the same equipment as he does for maple tapping (though Romanyshyn emphasized the importance of using separate lines for birch and maple sap so as not to cross-contaminate).
“It’s the same tapping equipment, same tubing, same spouts,” Couture said. “You pretty much want a dedicated system if it’s tubing, but buckets you could easily wash the buckets out and hang them on the birch tree.”
Plus, Romanyshyn said, the birch tapping season begins around the time that the maple season ends. Maple sap starts “running” during freeze and thaw cycles throughout the late winter, while birch sap comes up from the tree’s roots when the spring thaw really hits, generally in early April.
“A few years, it’s been exactly that day,” Romanyshyn said. “It begins around the first of April and usually it’s under three weeks. I think the longest one we had was last year and that was 24 days.”
As an added benefit, birch sap runs much easier out of the trees than maple sap because of the physiology of the plants.
“The way the sap works in a birch tree is there’s the groundwater passing through the roots of the tree creating a gas that pushes the sap up the tree, which is different from maple where it’s being drawn up from the branches above,” Romanyshyn said. “You don’t need a vacuum if you’re using tubing.”
The challenges of birch
Transitioning between maple and birch tapping — or even just striking out for the first time tapping birch trees — comes with its own unique challenges.
First, birch trees are more fragile than maple trees. Couture said that researchers at the University of Vermont are still studying whether it is healthy for birch trees to be tapped every year.
“Birch is not as hardy as a maple,” Couture said. “[With] maple, it’s almost no problem whatsoever to tap it every year.”
For that reason, too, you have to be more diligent about the hygiene of your equipment.
“You have to replace your spouts every year,” Romanyshyn said. “The bacteria that solidify on the inside of the tap and you can’t clean that. That’ll go back into the hole and the holes will close up and it might even kill the tree.”
Couture noted that birch sap is also more acidic than maple sap, which can corrode copper pipes if those are among your sap tapping equipment.
“That’s not really an issue for the most part, everything for making syrup nowadays is going to be stainless steel,” Couture said. “Older equipment could run into [issues].”
Birch tappers also must take care not to start their season prematurely.
“If you tap before the sap is running, the holes will close up and you’ll get much less sap,” Rosmanyshyn said. “It’s hard to be patient and wait. The most scientific [way to figure out when to start tapping] is to tap the tree and attach it to a pressure gauge. When the needle is straight up and down, you know it’s ready to rush out.”
Cooking birch sap into syrup is also much more finicky than making maple sap into syrup.
“You have to be a little more careful in how you cook it,” Couture said. “The sugars are different in birch and it’s easier to burn the syrup if you cook it too hot for too long.
Romanyshyn said that if you overcook birch sap, it can turn into “a black tar.”
“It really comes down to the technique of how you boil,” Romanyshyn said. “The latest thing that big producers are doing is steaming, so it doesn’t actually ever boil. We boil it hard in the very beginning and then we go very, very slow and careful. That seems to work for us.”
Romanyshyn added that it takes nearly three times as much sap to make birch syrup than it would for maple syrup.
“It takes about 120 gallons to make one gallon of [birch] syrup [because] the sugar content is less,” Romanyshyn said. “Most birch [syrup] producers use reverse osmosis to get a head start so you don’t have to cook it as much.”
Also, birch sap is more perishable than maple, which is especially problematic given that the sap is harvested during the warmer part of the late winter and early spring.
“You can’t hang onto sap like you might with maple,” Couture said. “The weather is so warm, you can’t hang onto it for an entire week. It spoils because of the sugar. A lot of the backyard guys, they’ll fill up barrels with sap and leave it until Saturday. You can’t really do that.”
Birch syrup also tastes much different than maple syrup, which can be off putting to consumers and make finding a market more challenging.
“Maple is sucrose and glucose, and birch is fructose and glucose,” Romanyshyn said. “It’s very tart and strong tasting with [almost a] fruity flavor. It can depend on what time of year the syrup is made, just like with maple. When we do the tastings at Common Ground [Fair], we’re always laughing because some people love it and some don’t.”
Still, birch syrup can be used in a variety of ways.
“It’s really great as a glaze on meat or fish,” Romanyshyn said. “It’s really great in mixed drinks. It’s really good by itself on ice cream.”
Because of the difficulties of producing birch syrup, Romanyshyn said that small producers and hobby tappers might want to try drinking sap first. Unlike maple sap, which has some vitamins and minerals but is very sugary, birch sap is rich with minerals and antioxidants, and is used in other places in the world like Russia as a healthful drink.
“There’s also people just bottling the sap and touting the benefits like coconut water,” Romanyshyn said. “I always tell people if you have a few birch trees, the best thing you can do is tap them and drink the sap. It’s a really great tonic.”