Vermont sugarmakers turn to birch syrup

Darrell Bussino (left) and Bucky Shelton have started a new kind of sugaring venture.  They’re making birch syrup, which had a retail price last year of $78 a quart.  Photo by Jeremy Dean

Darrell Bussino (left) and Bucky Shelton have started a new kind of sugaring venture. They’re making birch syrup, which had a retail price last year of $78 a quart. Photo by Jeremy Dean

by Tena Starr

copyright the Chronicle April 30, 2014

GLOVER — A pair of Glover men may have found a new way to get money from trees — birch trees.

Longtime maple sugarmaker Bucky Shelton and a friend, Darrell Bussino, have teamed up and are making birch syrup. Its retail price is around $300 a gallon, and about the only significant source of it in the world, right now, is Alaska, which sells as much as it can make.

“It was an idea conceived by Darrell and I,” Mr. Shelton said on Monday. “He had an asset in some white birch, and I’d had this in the back of my mind.”

His daughter lives in Alaska, so he was aware of the birch syrup industry there, where he recently paid $20 for eight ounces at an Anchorage farmers market.

“Darrell was interested, so we decided to take a risk and try it,” Mr. Shelton said. “We just figured we’d give it a whirl.”

“I have a whole hill of birch trees,” Mr. Bussino said. “I said, let’s go tap them.”

They’d initially planned to start very small but ended up tapping about 200 trees on Mr. Bussino’s property and another 100 or so on Mr. Shelton’s.

They are using Scott Dean’s evaporator and boiling raw sap that hasn’t been condensed by going through reverse osmosis, which takes out some of the water before the sap is boiled.

It’s a whole new game, even for someone as experienced as Mr. Shelton, who has been sugaring for decades. For one thing, the traditional ratio of maple sap to syrup is 40 to one, meaning it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

With birch syrup that ratio is 100 to one, or worse, Mr. Shelton said. “It’s more like 120 or 150. But the flavor is wonderful. We describe it as kind of a fruity, raspberry flavor.”

Mr. Bussino said he likes it, too, although it’s a surprise if you’re anticipating something like maple. “You have to get maple out of your mind,” he said.

The goal for this year was to make ten gallons of syrup, Mr. Bussino said. “And we’ve already exceeded that.”

“There seems to be a real market for it,” Mr. Shelton said. “It’s not for pancakes. It’s for ice cream, cooking, it seems like there’s a market for high end restaurants.”

One advantage for established sugarmakers is that the sap starts running in the birches right about when the maples have dried up for the season. “It starts basically when the maples stop,” Mr. Shelton said.

The birch sap has been running lately so fast that he’s having trouble keeping up with gathering it and said the buckets have been overflowing.

It also boils differently and is easy to burn, Mr. Shelton said. The finished product is of the same density as maple syrup, but when it looks like syrup in the pan he’s learned that it isn’t yet.

Mr. Shelton was boiling late Monday afternoon, and the smell walking into the sugarhouse was markedly different from a traditional maple operation — sweeter, lighter.

He offered a sample of the finished product, and it was tasty enough but the flavor was unexpected — fruity, a little tangy.

“It’s an interesting experiment because it’s actually working,” Mr. Shelton said.

It definitely is an experiment, said Abby van den Berg at the Proctor Maple Research Center.   Ms. Van den Berg was delighted to hear that the two Glover men are making birch syrup.

“We’ve been researching the idea of adding birch to maple,” as a season extender, she said. “It makes a lot of sense. It uses all of the same equipment.

“But does it actually increase revenues for maple producers? I have no good numbers on how many people are doing it, and the market for it is an even bigger question. The producers who make most of the birch syrup are in Alaska, and they sell out basically immediately each year.”

Anecdotally, demand is unmet, but she has no hard numbers, Ms. van den Berg said. “But we think there’s a pretty big potential.”

It makes sense for an established sugarmaker to extend the season by tapping birch trees, she said.

“It makes it a lot easier if you have a maple operation already set up. But that’s not to say that you couldn’t set up a birch operation. You run into the same challenges.”

Actually, the challenges to making birch syrup can be more daunting than those involved with making maple, which Ms. van den Berg acknowledges.

Not only does one have to deal with the vagaries of weather, but also there is that low sugar content in birch sap to contend with, which makes the cost of turning sap into syrup considerably higher, especially without reverse osmosis.

“Unless you have a lot of trees, it can cost up to $200 to produce that gallon,” Ms. van den Berg said. “It depends on having critical volume. There’s efficiency of numbers. It can be worth every penny at $300.”

The other thing birch syrup makers must go up against is that the sap season is brief. There’s a lot of water to get rid of somehow, and the sap season is much shorter.

The Proctor Center is continuing research, Ms. van de Berg said. “We’re still trying to investigate the physiology of these trees.”

The research that has been done indicates that, on average, 18.3 ounces of syrup can be produced annually from a paper birch tree in Vermont.

“Findings indicate that birch syrup can be produced profitably, and this can be a way to increase revenues and long-term economic sustainability of existing maple operations,” says a report on the Northeastern State Research Cooperative website.

Ms. Van de Berg was the principle investigator.

She was excited Monday to learn that someone is actually trying it, and she encourages anyone who is interested to get in touch with her so she can share what limited information she has.

For his part, Mr. Shelton said he loves this new enterprise. The fledgling operation is new and has potential for entrepreneurs like himself.

Mr. Bussino said he has some marketing ideas, but right now they’re still in the very busy midst of making the syrup.

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

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