Birch sap is used throughout the world, mainly in eastern European and Baltic countries, as both a drinking tonic and as a syrup. It has a distinctive taste and is touted for its medicinal properties, like high amounts of vitamins and antioxidants.
Maine has a lot of birch trees and a strong culture of tapping maple trees for similar purposes already. Can tapping birch trees catch on in the Pine Tree State?
Michael Romanyshyn, owner of Temple Tappers in Temple, certainly thinks it has potential. He has been tapping birch trees and making birch syrup for almost a decade now and sees room for growth.
“Maine has more tappable birch trees than any other state besides Alaska,” Rosmanyshyn said. “If the state would get a little more interested in it there’s a huge potential in just the sap. [It’s] being used in a lot of products all over the world.”
Romanyshyn said that he might be the exception, though. Much of the interest in birch tapping comes from maple syrup producers with birch trees, who may consider tapping birch trees for a valuable extension to their growing season and a way to make greater use of their equipment.
“It lines up really well with the maple industry in that you need all of the same equipment to make birch syrup as you need to make maple syrup,” said Jason Lilley, sustainable agriculture professional at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “The season for birch sap flow starts right as maple sap flow is stopping so producers can scrub down their equipment and almost the next week go right into birch syrup production.”
Max Couture, owner of Road’s End Farm in Canton, is one such producer. He started producing small quantities of birch syrup last year.
“We decided we wanted to try birch because I have quite a few birch trees mixed into my sugar bush,” Couture said. “It’s becoming more popular. People are realizing they can add it onto their maple operation.”
Birch syrup can be sold at a premium.
“You’re adding a second product that’s way more valuable per gallon than maple,” Couture said. “It would be about $370 a gallon [for birch] whereas maple, depending on who you buy it from, it’s anywhere from $60 to $100 a gallon at the retail prices.”
However, the taste of birch syrup — which is tart and almost fruity — could be an issue for finding a market for the product. Lilley said that he doesn’t have much taste for birch syrup.
“There’s a level of bitterness that comes with that, too,” Lilley said. “In my experience and in the birch syrup I’ve tasted, [it] is a very acquired taste and I don’t know what the market demand is for it. It’s a unique flavor and it’s something that we aren’t used to here in Maine.”
There are some other hoops that birch syrup producers have to jump through as well. Currently, birch syrup is considered a processed food as opposed to being in the same production category as maple syrup, which is considered its own separate category, so producers have to go through additional licensing in order to start selling their products. The Maine state legislature is currently considering a bill called L.D. 416 H.P. 300, which would put birch syrup in the same category as maple syrup.
“When you can or bottle maple syrup, it’s a pretty simple process and that’s why they allow you to do that in your sugar house without a commercial license,” Couture said. “Birch syrup is different. It doesn’t just fall under the maple rules. It’s actually a little annoying almost to try and sell it because you have to take that extra step.”
Couture has been lobbying for this emergency bill through the Maine Farm Bureau, and is hoping that it will be resolved at the beginning of this upcoming season.
“Everyone I’ve talked to seems pretty confident it won’t receive opposition,” Couture said. “It’s almost like an oversight.”
Once some of the kinks are ironed out, though, birch dabblers and committed producers alike feel there is potential for the birch industry in Maine. However, there is still not a very large market for birch products here.
“It has the potential to be a niche product at a small scale,” Lilley said. “As it stands right now, I don’t see this [turning] into a widespread product that is anywhere near the popularity of Maine maple syrup [but] I think it has the potential for a few more producers to get into it.”
Before you commit to producing birch syrup at a larger scale, Lilley said to make sure you have a market.
“I always encourage farmers of any type of product to have the product sold before they even begin to produce it,” Lilley said. “Make a couple of small batches this season and then go out and do sampling with restaurants or local grocers.”
Another thing that could help is Maine’s foodie scene.
“You leave it to the number of awesome restaurants we have in the state and the level of ingenuity of these chefs and I’m sure there’s going to be some really cool products that come from using birch syrup,” Lilley said.