Birch Boy unique in Southeast

Posted: Wednesday, April 17, 2002

For more than a decade, Daniel and Susan Humphrey have been working to harvest the potential of the flora near Haines - as well as open the minds of locals and tourists.

"In Alaska people have a few products in mind, but syrup is not one of them," said Daniel Humphrey, who with his wife runs Birch Boy Products.

Although the operation will run at a minimal level this spring, the Humphreys usually tap about 1,000 birch trees on their property north of Haines, collect the sap and boil it to remove excess water content, resulting in thick, sweet birch syrup.

It takes three days to tap the trees, about a mile of plastic tubing that runs from collection stations to the evaporator, and about 100 gallons of birch sap to produce one gallon of birch syrup, Daniel Humphrey said.

Then, through the remainder of the spring and summer, the Humphreys successively produce other varieties of syrups including spruce tip, rhubarb, blueberry, strawberry and highbush cranberry.

The composition and taste of the syrups differ from their maple relatives because they are sweetened primarily by fructose, instead of sucrose. Fructose is a unique flavor with a unique set of properties. Birch sap contains fructose naturally, and it is also added to some varieties of syrups at the end of production.

Fructose is more sensitive to heat, meaning more care is required during the boiling process. However, Daniel Humphrey said, the fructose base keeps better than maple syrup, is a bit better for those watching their sugar intake, and makes it easier to produce some of the syrup varieties.

Humphrey said it is unlikely that other birch producers will form in the Southeast Alaska.

"Haines is about the only area with a big enough birch stand to do it," he said. And the sugar content of Southeast birch trees is low - 0.7 percent, compared to up to 1.3 percent elsewhere in the state, he said.

There are seven or eight other birch syrup operations in the state, clustered in the Fairbanks and Mat-Su areas. Four of those are commercial producers, Humphrey said.

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