The end of winter in Homer marked the beginning of a short but sweet season for Homer residents Anna Meredith and Jake Beaudoin.
In the small window of time between the spring thaw and budding leaves, usually between 15-24 days, Meredith and Beaudoin collect sap from approximately 600 Kenai birch trees on the Homer bench along East End Road. By working with willing landowners, they are able to tap the trees and collect thousands of gallons of the sap.
Alaska has three commercial producers of birch syrup across the entire state. Beaudoin and Meredith are the only birch syrup producers on the Kenai Peninsula, Meredith said.
Meredith grew up in western New York State making maple syrup with her family. Beaudoin grew up in Homer making birch syrup in his kitchen with his mom. Together, they’ve applied previous knowledge to make syrup with a locally available tree.
However, the flavor of birch syrup is different than the milder maple syrup.
“Though I love the amber flavor of maple, there’s nothing like the bold flavor nuances of birch syrup,” Meredith said. “I truly feel I’ll never find a unique flavor quite like it anywhere else in this world. Jake and I still find it pretty fascinating all that flavor comes straight from the tree.”
Beaudoin and Meredith’s birch syrup received international acclaim in June 2015 at the first-ever International Birch Syrup Conference held at Paul Smith’s College in upstate New York. The conference brought together people from all over the world, including Russia, Canada, Europe and two other Alaska producers, Meredith said.
“The conference was organized with the intention of encouraging more maple producers to extend beyond maple and into birch production. The conference brought together nearly 100 people who spend their time in the woods making food for humans from trees — a pretty enjoyable crowd of people,” Meredith said.
The conference held the Tastes of Birch Competition, from which Meredith and Beaudoin’s syrup took first place in the late-run category. Over 40 people taste-tested the birch syrup entries from northern countries all around the globe.
“We were stoked to bring a first place award with us on the 5,000-mile trip home,” Meredith said.
As with maple syrup, each season produces three different types of syrup — early-run, mid-run and late-run — with a unique flavor profile.
Early-run syrup possesses a smooth, subtle flavor, perfect for desserts, sourdough pancakes or straight out of the bottle, Meredith said. Mid-run builds into a stronger and more savory syrup perfect for any culinary use. Late-run reveals the true bold qualities of the birch and is best used for marinades on meats and fish, and for baking granola, pies, savories and other treats.
All of the runs overlap in usage, leaving it up to the consumer to choose their favorite flavor.
It takes about 100 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of birch syrup. When they started producing birch syrup five years ago, Beaudoin and Meredith made 10 gallons. After collecting 4,500 gallons of sap this year, they have produced 45 gallons of birch syrup. The recent warmer winters and quick jump to spring narrow the window during which sap for syrup can be collected.
Once the birch trees start sprouting leaves, the sap contains a higher yeast concentration, becomes cloudy and is no longer suitable to use for syrup. In previous years, they collected syrup as late as May, Beaudoin said. This year, they worked from the end of the March to the beginning of April.
Knowing which trees to tap takes a learned eye, Meredith said. They tap on the south side of trees that are at least nine inches in diameter and have healthy branches. Broken branches mean the tree has already been stressed, so they leave those alone.
Tapping the tree to collect sap does not harm the tree, as long proper practices are used to prevent bacteria from entering the hole in the tree.
Once the sap is collected, Meredith and Beaudoin bring it back to the sugar shop they built next to their house. The sap is filtered and pumped into numerous holding tanks, from which it is then gravity fed into a 2-by-6-foot efficiency wood-fired evaporator. Boiling in drop-flue pans from a 2,000-degree forced-air fire, the sap is constantly concentrated into syrup. The faster the sap is processed, the higher the quality of the final product, Meredith said. The average sugar content of the birch sap produced in Homer is 0.9 percent.
The filtered sap can also be used as a drink as its low sugar and high electrolyte content provides nutrients and minerals for the body, Meredith said. However the sap must be consumed, refrigerated or boiled into syrup within a day of its collection or it will go bad.
“In addition to supporting local foods, birch offers multiple health benefits, is a non-addictive natural sweetener, and is mind-blowing on vanilla ice cream,” Meredith said.
Meredith and Beaudoin will sell their Bridge Creek Birch Syrup at the Homer Farmer’s Market over the summer and are also open to educating others about the syrup making process, the couple said.