Living the sweet life off-grid

Editor’s note: The spelling of Jake Beaudoin’s name has been corrected.

As the only local commercial birch syrup operator on the Kenai Peninsula, Bridge Creek Birch Syrup right here in Homer sells out every year of their sweet syrup. Nature’s gift, they call it.

Approaching their property, one can smell it right away — sweet, billowy smoke rising up over the spruce trees. Inside the sugarhouse, the aroma hits: heady and redolent of toasted brown sugar and caramel. The wood fire is stoked continuously as the evaporator boils sap, concentrating the liquid into a thick syrup. Looking like a quintessential scene from woodsy days of yore, the off-grid operation uses human powered harvest and a mighty stack of wood to keep the evaporator hot and the syrup running.

Owners Anna Meredith and Jake Beaudoin are in their seventh year tapping Homer’s birches. In the short three-week season, they’re out every morning collecting from their birch grove on a friend’s farm on East End Road.

While everyone knows maple syrup, birch syrup is slightly less common. Its season generally comes shortly after maple season. There’s an early, mid and late run, all with subtle flavor differences. The first run is sucrose; afterward it runs fructose and glucose. At Bridge Creek, the sap is all from Kenai birches, which give a uniquely Alaska birch taste.

“Different birch, different flavor,” Beaudoin said.

The taste of the final product is initially a rich shock of caramel, which then mellows out into a sweet, pleasant aftertaste — a three toned, truly local flavor.

An artisanal product, “It’s like brewing beer; each syrup producer makes a different birch flavor,” Beaudoin said.

The process starts on the birch grove, where a modern, efficient system of tapping birch allows Bridge Creek Birch company and friends to harvest 1,300 gallons of sap per day during the brief burst of the sap season.

From a maple sugaring family in New York, Meredith knows the importance of proper tapping technique.

“It’s in our best interest to keep trees healthy, to leave no trace. Low impact harvesting is important for conservation, and the most low impact method is human powered,” she said. “We want to conserve. Maple has been tapped in New England for hundreds of years. They say it uses less than 10 percent of the tree’s sap.”

As part of this human powered philosophy, Meredith and Beaudoin use family, friends and community to help tap the extensive birch grove. This past weekend, Homer Flex School sent its Natural Resources class to the birch grove with counselor Ingrid Harrald to learn from Bridge Creek Birch Syrup about the science of birch syrup production. The three teens took sap back to school they had collected and shared with classmates as they taught Flex students about the health of birch sap.

Meredith brings her knowledge of modern maple syrup equipment from her family’s practice, like vacuum tubing and reverse osmosis machines, to Alaskan birches. The water content of birch sap is a challenge. Typically, 40 to 60 gallons of maple sap yield one gallon of syrup. This spring, they averaged 116 gallons of birch sap to make one gallon of syrup, which means a lot of time in the sugarhouse.

Refining is a multi-step process. After the sap goes through reverse osmosis, it gets filtered through vacuum tubing into the evaporator, where it gets boiled to a 66 percent sugar content. Then, this liquid gets poured into a pan to test for sugar content. Once it’s at the proper sugar percentage, they spread diatomaceous earth into the mixture. That liquid then gets poured into a filter press. Once the sap is pressed through the filter press and diatomaceous earth, it’s a pure product: nothing but birch syrup.

Sold at several retail locations around Homer, they also sell wholesale to Chugach Chocolates and Wild Scoops.

The price tag might seem hefty initially until you realize how much labor and love went into each bottle. A seasonal, special treat, they recommend putting it on vanilla or coconut ice cream. The sweetness and rich aroma go well with the rich dairy.

“I like to tell people about the nutritional value,” Meredith said. “The late run is loaded with nutrients and minerals. In Europe it’s used as a tonic. I put it in smoothies and barbecue sauce. You can make rouges for steaks, or drizzle cheese and fruit with it.”

“Baste meats in it — it’s killer,” Beaudoin said.

Part of the off-grid ethos is the small touches: the evaporator is wood-fired, and they simply put their number on the bottle itself. It’s important to them to do things the traditional way. Meredith described the feeling of joy at sharing a good product:

“A few weeks ago an old timer from Anchorage called me up. He’d been gifted our birch syrup, and he said the bottle had been sitting there for ages. He told me that he finally tried it, and now it’s gone. He wanted to know where he could get more.”

To know it’s a product that stands the test of time, “That felt really good,” Meredith said. The first place to purchase this year’s Bridge Creek Birch Syrup will be at the Shorebird Festival Crafts Fair, where they will be as a vendor. After that, you can find their syrup at select retail locations around town and at the Farmers Market all summer.

Bridge Creek Barbecue Recipe:

1/2 cup birch syrup

2 tsp salt

1 tsp ground pepper

1/2 tsp cayenne (up to 1 tsp if you desire more kick)

1 tsp paprika (smoked paprika is tasty if you have it, regular is fine too)

1 tsp garlic powder

Bring to boil, stirring frequently, shut off burner to let cool while continuing to stir frequently.

Baste a roast in the oven frequently. Or, the sauce makes a perfect glaze on grilled foods (meats, veggies, fish). Baste throughout and then at very last minute, but keep on grill long enough to heat the sauce all the way through.

Many use the syrup straight or variations of this recipe for smoking foods like salmon and pork, too.

Jennifer Tarnacki is a freelance writer living in Homer.