Syrup Production to the Greenhouse and Back- How Sweet!
January 2018 Presentation at the Horticultural Growers Short Course Program in Abbotsford, BC
In our presentation today we would like to tell you about our combined sugar shack and greenhouse operation.
This combined activity is suited to where we live and the lifestyle that goes along with remote/rural living. We are certainly not getting rich from our labours. We are very small producers and the income generated from our operation is supplementary only.
Our primary motivation for starting this business was to keep farm status as per the BC Assessment Authority’s classification. The property was an unfinished Crown land agriculture lease from the 1970’s. We purchased the lease in 2004. When you purchase ag leases under the provincial Crown Grant program the expectation is that you will undertake some agricultural activity on the land. However, what the land in our area really wants to do is grow trees. As a result, it was not cost effective to keep the land in hay or pasture. With our syrup/greenhouse combination we figure we’ve tried to appease both the government and nature.
Where We Live
The Kispiox Valley is about the same Latitude as the southern tip of the Alaskan panhandle.
The climate is drier than Terrace to the west but wetter and milder than Smithers to the east. The Kispiox River is world famous for its steelhead fishing.
Forestry is still the main economic driver in the Northwest. Agriculture has a presence but mostly on a hobby farm scale for cattle, hogs, sheep, poultry, and specialty products like ostrich.
A unique feature of our property includes a small lake which moderates spring time temperatures.
The terrain is rolling upland which is where the paper birch tree is abundant.
The timber is a good mix of spruce, hemlock, cedar, balsam fir, poplar and paper birch.
In the Kispiox birch tree tapping starts mid-April and goes until the first few days of May. The greenhouse growing season starts in late March, and we are in the Zone 4 classification.
In 2010 I took a one day course presented by the owners of Moose Meadows Farm in West Quesnel. They produce birch syrup as part of their agri-tourism farm. Their Birch Syrup Production Manual published in 2007 was quite helpful for our start up.
However, most of our learning has been trial and error over the last 6 years to find out what works best for our micro-climate, the market size and appropriate production level. We record basic physical characteristics of the tapped trees. The location of tap holes is marked on a tree every year as using the same tap hole would permanently injure the tree. Maple trees can be tapped throughout their lifetime but birch trees should be retired after 5 years of tapping.
We also keep track of sap yield on a daily basis from every tree we tap. It’s quite amazing how much it varies from tree to tree and how each tree varies from year to year. Scientific research hasn’t shown any clear correlation between sap yield and variables like tree crown width or how crowded the sugar bush area is. You just can’t predict what’s going to happen.
Another part of the learning curve was the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s rules and regulations regarding the processing facility and procedures, as well as the bottling and labeling requirements. A CFI agent came to inspect our facility last year and we passed. Getting FoodSafe certification is a good idea and we have done that.
The Building Phase
The local market for our syrup and plants is very small so we built accordingly. The sap shack is about 260 sq. ft. and the greenhouse is about 1200 sq ft.
Capital outlay was minimal; we tried to re-use or repurpose what we had on hand for setting up both sap shack and greenhouse, e.g. door, window, concrete floor slabs. The lumber and siding is from trees on our property. Outside of the greenhouse plastic and tin roof, almost everything else was recycled and reused.
Advantages we have that helped us to get started:
• Owning heavy equipment (cat, excavator, backhoe) made building construction easier and makes creating access to birch groves possible;
• Lots of dead or danger trees available for firewood
• Water sources are lake water and gravity feed
The heat ducting is actually used road culvert and dryer hoses. Fans were recycled from old furnaces and demolished buildings.
Salvaged wood stoves heat the greenhouse and cook the sap.
In the last week of March, we fire up the greenhouse stove and begin transplanting commercially grown plant plugs. Seeded plants are transplanted and moved from the house to the greenhouse more gradually. By this time the longer daylight hours really start to take off in the north and plant growth speeds up.
In order to be cost effective in this small market we work with other small greenhouse owners, e.g. in Burns Lake, Terrace, and a perennial grower on Vancouver Island. By doing this we can split larger plant plug orders so that we get a greater variety of plants. Road trips to pick up plants and supplies are also an opportunity to make birch syrup sales calls on restaurants and retail stores. Our main customers for flowers and hanging baskets are the District of New Hazelton and the Village of Hazelton. We sell at 2 Farmers Markets and from the greenhouse itself.
In terms of timing, by the beginning of May syrup production is wound up and the plants are ok in the greenhouse without wood stove heat. The towns hang up their baskets and fill their planters during the first week of June…and that pretty much ends our plant season. We grow and sell tomatoes and peppers that weren’t sold as bedding plants at the Farmers Markets.
Turning Sap into Syrup
Usually by the end of the first week of April we have tapped a few birch trees. The sap may not run freely until the second week. When it does, we tap a total of 80+ trees, fire up the stoves, begin evaporating sap and tend to the plants. Making birch syrup is very labour intensive. When you add up the hours for collecting, cooking, filtering, bottling and washing up, it is a 20 hour day. We don’t get much sleep for 3 weeks.
Our sap filter stand was made from an old tire rim and a recycled bed frame. This is the second filtering stage. Heavy fabric filters are placed inside the frame. We filter up to 7 times before the product is perfected. Our focus is on quality vs. quantity.
Most commercial Birch Syrup producers are using maple syrup evaporators. Cost to purchase starts at about $5,000 plus freight from Quebec.
When using this equipment the sap is boiled at high temperature and a de-foaming agent must be added to the sap. It is then transferred to an electric finishing pan where sugar is added to keep the syrup from burning. We use a custom built evaporator that we designed to boil the sap at a lower temperature which gives our Pure Birch syrup a unique flavour. As a result we don’t need to use de-foamers, sugars or other additives.
Sugar content is measured in units called brix. Our product is reduced to 67 degrees brix which is just before carmelization happens.
The colour, taste and viscosity of birch syrup is affected by the cooking process but when the sap was collected is also a contributing factor. Sap collected during the first week produces a sweeter, amber coloured syrup. As the season progresses the syrup gets darker in colour and less sweet. The end of the season is when the sap has a yellowish colour and a yeasty smell. Time to pull the spiles and tubes and wash everything thoroughly.
As the sap cooks it changes colour from clear to yellow, to amber, to dark brown. 120 to 180 litres of sap are required to make 1 litre of syrup. After 6 years we still burn a batch or two, and it’s a messy clean up job. Commercial grade sulphanic acid mixed with water will thoroughly remove burnt syrup from stainless steel.
As far as we know we are the only commercial producer in N. America that only produces a sugar free pure birch syrup.
The Final Product
- We bottle 3 sizes: Son of a Birch (50 ml) , Mama (250ml) and Papa (375ml)
- One litre size is available for restaurant chefs
- Best to bottle the syrup when it is warm and not too thick
- Syrup is shelf stable at 61 degrees brix but it can be frozen and the taste is not affected when thawed
- 2 tbsp. of pure birch syrup has 100 calories with 20g of sugar; maple syrup is about 14% higher in sugar content; honey is almost 30% higher in sugar content
- Pure birch syrup is a source of potassium, manganese and thiamin
How do you Consume Birch Syrup?
Pure birch syrup is an expensive product so you want to use it sparingly and not mask it with a lot of other flavours.
- Goes well with salmon, fresh, previously frozen, or canned
- The light early season syrup is nice drizzled on vanilla ice cream, plain yogurt or whipped cream on your coffee
- Make an easy glaze or dip with mayonnaise and your favourite hot sauce
- The later season dark thick syrup is preferred by some chefs, has a more complex taste, more suited to savoury dishes
- Adding sugar during the cooking stage opens up other product possibilities, like candy, BBQ sauce, mustards, fruit combination syrups
- These are possible with large quantities of sap and a commercial evaporator
In conclusion, making birch syrup is still a cottage industry, especially in BC. Currently there are no industry standards that prescribe production methods and the quality of the final product. Unlike the heavily regulated maple syrup industry, birch syrup available for sale today lacks consistency in taste, colour and texture from producer to producer. This will change if and when demand for birch syrup increases substantially from its present levels. In the meantime we are still in the consumer education phase of development.