Friday, June 30, 2017

Birch sap cooperative boosts OneTree's work

When Jan Dawe sought extra help this spring collecting birch sap for OneTree Alaska’s research, the response surpassed her expectations.

Sugar master Shaun Johnson filters the syrup that he has been
 processing in OneTree's facility.
Dawe said more than 20 people showed up at the first birch sap cooperative meeting OneTree organized, and people just kept calling and stopping by to check out the taps and buckets they needed.  Altogether, 43 households and school groups collected sap for the co-op.

Individuals who delivered sap to the OneTree facility in the old Lola Tilly Commons kitchen will receive a share of birch syrup in July based on the amount of sap they contributed.

OneTree's buckets hang from trees at Valene
and Rod Ebersole's home.
And they delivered. Beginning in mid-April, 3.5- and 5-gallon white buckets arrived daily during 30-day season when clear sap flowed in Interior birch trees. Some collectors delivered as many as 60-80 gallons a day. They tapped trees as far south as Salcha and in all areas around Fairbanks.

Altogether, volunteers collected 3,300 gallons of birch sap. That, combined with OneTree’s collection of 2,000 gallons, added up to 5,300 gallons — one sweet haul.

Dawe and her staff have been exploring processing techniques for small-scale birch sap production.  They are investigating different types of evaporators and methods to see how they affect the efficiency and quality of syrup production. Dawe, a botanist by training, is a research assistant professor of natural resource education and community engagement. She describes the birch sap work as a demonstration research project, and the OneTree facility an “incubator” to encourage entrepreneurs interested in the business.  

At least seven producers sold birch syrup in Alaska in the 1990s, she said.  Only one larger business near Talkeetna, Kahiltna Birchworks, still exists, along with a new small company in Fairbanks called Sample Alaska, LLC

Dawe said the co-op’s birch tappers included students, retirees, families and others. Some were curious about tapping trees and others want to sell products, such as candies and granola, made with the syrup. A few are considering whether to start their own business.

Shaun Johnson uses a digital refractometer to
 measure the sugar content of the syrup.
Valene and Rod Ebersole tapped 60 birch trees on their farm off Steele Creek Road and on their best day delivered 80 gallons of sap to the co-op. They averaged around 60 gallons over a 10-day period. Valene said the couple planted 1,000 peonies last year and were looking for other possibilities for their farm when they heard about birch syrup processing at the Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Fairbanks this spring.

She said, “We’ve got birch trees. Why don’t we try this?”

She said it went pretty well, although it was a lot of labor carrying around the buckets. They may try tubing next year and collect sap for the co-op again. After they see how things go next year, they will consider whether to start making birch syrup as a business.

Mary Calmes and her husband, Tim Quintal, learned about the co-op from a neighbor and decided to give birch tapping a try. After getting the equipment and instructions from OneTree, they tapped six birch trees on their property off Smallwood Trail.

Calmes said they collected about three gallons of birch sap daily, kept a half-gallon for themselves to drink and delivered the rest. Calmes said the birch water tastes a lot like water but has a hint of sweetness to it and contains a variety of minerals.  They plan to tap again next year, she said, because as retirees they have the time to do it.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Calmes.

Dawe has been working with a New York fabricator who sells small-scale evaporators and reverse osmosis machines for sap product operations. Steve Caccamo of Next Generation Maple Products came to Alaska this spring to install equipment in the OneTree facility and to participate with Dawe in birch sap processing workshops. The smaller, hobby-size equipment he sells makes it more affordable for small producers to get in the business, according to Dawe.

Birch sap is sold in many areas of the world as birch water, a tonic with a slightly sweet taste, and some countries have traditionally held birch sap festivals. Dawe said birch sap has gained attention lately because of what people believe are its healthful properties.

Concentrated birch sap awaits processing.
Individuals who have tasted birch syrup previously may think of a dark molasses-tasting syrup.  The darker syrup is developed with longer processing times and late season sap. Dawe and crew have been experimenting with quicker processing methods that produce a lighter-colored syrup with more subtle flavors reminiscent of honey with a slightly fruity flavor.

In OneTree’s facility on a recent afternoon, the program’s sugar master, Shaun Johnson, explained how the process works.  Sap is run through a filter and into a 150-gallon tank. From there, it runs through a reverse osmosis machine to concentrate the syrup and eliminate about 85 percent of the water. The concentrated sap is frozen until it can be further processed in a steam evaporator or in a heated flat metal pan.

As the water evaporates, he uses a digital refractometer to check the sugar level. As it concentrates, the syrup darkens. They use a variety of evaporators, but he says, “The faster the evaporator, the lighter the syrup.”

It takes, on average, 100 gallons of birch sap for 1 gallon of syrup. Maple sap is sweeter at about  40:1. First run birch sap collected during the first few days of sap season is the best because it contains some sucrose, said Dawe. In fact, OneTree’s early-season birch syrup won first place for taste this year in the second-annual Global Birch Syrups Challenge in Leningrad, which included entries from Russia, Alaska and Canada.

In addition to research and outreach, Dawe and her staff are experimenting with selling birch syrup-based products to help support the OneTree program. They are selling straws that contain birch syrup for $1 each and are also developing birch caramels and birch fudge. Dawe said that at least two university programs in Vermont and New York also help support their programs by selling birch products.

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