Spring is a busy time of year for Ted Traer of Moose Meadows Farm. He spends up to 16 hours a day making syrup from what he describes as nature’s Gatorade from the birch trees in his backyard.
Since 2006, Traer and his wife, Heloise Dixon-Warren, have been producing birch syrup at their property near Bouchie Lake, west of Quesnel.
He recalls stumbling across an article at the Houston library in the mid-1990s listing all the different sugar contents of trees.
“It said while you could make syrup out of birch you have all these other maples with a higher sugar content, so why would you bother,” Traer says.
“The short story – why you bother – is because not everywhere in Canada do you have maple trees.”
Traer and Dixon-Warren moved to their farm in 2002. When Traer tapped his first birch tree he admits he wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing. Although he first tapped maple trees when he was in high school in New Brunswick back in 1977 and cooked the sap down into syrup on his mother’s stove, there are distinct differences between maple and birch.
Rich in sweetness, maple syrup is perfect for pancakes, while birch syrup, with its lower sugar content, is excellent for cooking and making marinades and vinaigrettes.
“Our theory when we came here was I was going to grow some Christmas trees, my wife wanted some horses, and we were going to get a couple of chickens,” Traer says. “That was what we kind of had planned at the time.”
Before producing birch syrup, the two had a Christmas wreath business that kept them busy. They also didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes as another nearby farm was already producing birch syrup.
“We talked to someone in town and they said the world is the market – there’s only a handful of producers across the country, so we said, OK, let’s give a go.”
Starting off wasn’t easy and came with its own set of challenges.
An old ‘ugly’ stove with doors that didn’t close properly – picked up from a buddy in exchange for a case of beer – served as an initial evaporator, and after tapping around 14 trees, they had 1,000 litres of sap to evaporate.
To officially get into the production of birch syrup, Traer picked up an evaporator from a supplier in Montreal, and built a sugar shack to house it.
“Sugaring” off typically occurs in early spring and lasts between two to four weeks when sap is collected and processed on a wood-fired evaporator.
The best time to collect sap is when the ground has started to thaw, and the trees are just waking up from winter, Traer says. If you wait until the trees begin to bud, the natural sugar within the sap starts to change and will ferment.
Every day, about 600 litres of sap is collected from the 200 to 300 trees at Moose Meadows Farm, then put in a holding tank and fed through the evaporator, which removes water and any sediment.
While some producers have gone high-tech, Traer prefers to keep things old school and hands-on as he runs the wood-fire evaporator late into the night.
“It’s a bit of labour of love,” he says.
“To me it’s Canadian because every kid in eastern Canada has gone to the sugar bush for the last 40 years, and it gets you in touch with what’s out there.”
Once the concentrate reaches a specific sugar density, Traer removes it from the evaporator, which is not designed for birch, and puts it in the freezer. It’s eventually slightly thawed and put upside down on a stainless steel rack from which the concentrate flows.
In the end, a grapefruit chunk of ice results in a now-lucrative syrup that’s ready to be bottled.
“Any time you can remove water from birch and not use heat you’re going to make a better flavour,” he says, noting reverse osmosis, which is an expensive and complex alternative, can also be used to remove water.
The syrup is bottled at the farm, where it’s been sold to chefs across Canada and the United States.
Traer enjoys it over a good vanilla ice cream and plank salmon with some garlic or pepper. Sometimes, when the night is cold in the sugar shack and the day has been long, he also enjoys it mixed with whiskey.
Dixon-Warren, who wrote a manual sold around the world on birch syrup production, says it can be used to make a lovely cheesecake, although it will set you back by using about one cup that’s worth around $25.
“It’s been great in terms of diversifying our farm,” she says.
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