Birch syrup explored as niche

Lee, N.H.

Unlike maple syrup-drenched Vermont and lobster-rich Maine, New Hampshire doesn’t have much to call its own in the food world. But it could find a future claim to fame in birch syrup, a nontraditional but increasingly popular product pulled from New Hampshire’s state tree.

For now, New Hampshire has just one known commercial producer of birch syrup, which is made in a similar manner as maple syrup but tastes completely different and commands a significantly higher price. But the industry is growing in western Canada and Alaska, and it’s being studied as a possible add-on venture for maple syrup producers across the northeastern United States.

Cornell University researchers tapped 400 birch trees in Lake Placid last year and 300 more this year to determine everything from optimum tapping times and collection practices to consumer preferences. Similar work is under way at the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center, where professor Abby van den Berg is studying whether it makes economic sense for maple syrup producers to expand into birch.

The first step is figuring out how much sap can be extracted from the average birch tree in the Northeast using modern practices, she said. Then comes number-crunching to figure out how many birch trees would have to be tapped to turn a profit. Given that much of the same equipment and techniques can be used to make both syrups, and the fact that birch sap generally starts to flow just as maple sap dries up, “it does present a tantalizing possibility,” van den Berg said.

While interest in birch syrup is growing, there are a few reasons why it has yet to catch on, Michael Farrell, director of Cornell’s Uihlein Sugar Maple Research and Extension Field Station, said. The maple season is short but exhausting, he said, so many producers may not relish the prospect of starting all over again with birch. And though birch trees are plentiful, they may not be growing close enough to maple trees to make it worthwhile for established maple producers. Finally, there’s the taste: Those accustomed to the sweetness of maple are often shocked by the fruity, tangy flavor of birch, which is more suited to marinades and savory dishes.

“If you were to put birch syrup on pancakes, you would regret that,” Farrell said.

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