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, N.Y., 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.
Michael Farrell, director of Cornell's Uihlein Sugar Maple Research and Extension Field Station, also sees a big opportunity for northeastern maple producers.
"We have all the infrastructure. So as soon as the season's over for maple, you clean up your maple stuff, start tapping your birch and make your birch syrup," he said. "Where it's made in Alaska and western Canada — especially in Alaska — the cost of materials is very high, and your shipping costs to get everything in there are high. ... So we should be able to make it at a lower price in the eastern U.S. than what is currently produced."
While interest in birch syrup is growing, there are a few reasons why it has yet to catch on, Farrell 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.
Birch syrup does have a following among high-end chefs, and Alaskan producers have seen success selling it overseas, particularly in Italy, he said. Closer to home, the syrup sells well in small containers as a novelty item or souvenir, he said.
"How you collect the sap and process it really determines the flavor of it, so if you're skilled and know what you're doing, you can make good-tasting birch syrup. I've had it," he said. "It's way different than the bad stuff. It doesn't have that bitter molasses flavor to it. And when you're making the syrup, that smells incredible. It actually smells like you're making raspberry jam."
David Moore, New Hampshire's only known commercial birch syrup producer, got his start in 2008, when he was a student at the University of New Hampshire. His senior project involved testing the sugar content of various birch varieties, and he found that white birch — New Hampshire's state tree — was the sweetest.
Birch sap overall has a much lower sugar content than maple syrup, however. It takes more than 100 gallons of birch sap to produce one gallon of syrup, compared with a 40:1 ratio for maple syrup. And because birch sap contains different types of sugar, it caramelizes rapidly and can scorch easily. Moore said he doesn't actually boil his birch sap but instead lets it simmer until most of the water evaporates.
Moore, who takes a month off from his full-time job at another farm to run his syrup operation, tapped 210 trees this year, and was just beginning to collect and process the sap last week. He sells some of his syrup to restaurants and the rest through general stores and farmers markets, priced at $25 for 8 oz. or $300 per gallon. Many customers who try a sample are surprised, he said.
"The most common reaction is, 'It's very molasses-y,'" he said. "I think they're expecting it to taste like maple syrup."
In Maine, Kevin Grant has been tapping birch trees on his property in Ripley for six or seven years, and he and his wife enjoy the results in baked beans, beer and other recipes. He doesn't have the fancier tubing used by commercial producers, just buckets hung on trees. Sometimes, he's had to empty the buckets two or three times a day to keep up with the flow, Grant said.
"You get a lot more sap in a short amount of time," he said.
He was collecting sap by the roadside years ago when an older couple pulled up in their car.
"I heard some fool out here was tapping birch trees," the driver said.
When Grant replied, "You found him!" the man shook his head.
"Now I've seen it all," he said.