Haines syrups attract a gourmet following

Posted: Monday, June 20, 2005

ANCHORAGE - A Haines birch syrup company, started from scratch when a local sawmill shut down, will be moving into international markets soon, with a boost from Slow Food USA.

"We should be on their list this month," said Susan Humphrey of Birch Boy Gourmet Birch Syrups. "It's a huge thing to be listed there."

Humphrey said Slow Food USA - an educational organization dedicated to supporting and celebrating food traditions of North America - is the latest gourmet connection for Birch Boy, whose customers include chef Wolfgang Puck.

"My goal when I started this business was to at least get recognized nationally," said Humphrey, who started the business with her husband, Daniel, when he lost his job at the Chilkoot Lumber Mill in Haines.

That was a dozen years ago. Today the Humphreys do a brisk business in a variety of birch and fruit syrups in retail markets and also via their Web site.

"This is the first year our retail mail order equaled the wholesale," Humphrey said. "For the past 12 years, we have done primarily wholesale to gift shops."

Birch Boy products are carried by most of the shops in Haines, a few shops in Juneau and a few in the Anchorage area, including Nonessentials, a gourmet boutique in downtown Palmer. They are also available at Saturday Market in Anchorage.

Internet orders come mostly from California and the northeastern United States, including New York, Connecticut, Maine, Vermont and New Jersey, she said. "They are people just randomly searching, or they saw us when we were featured on the Food Network last April."

The best part of the business is being able to make something from nothing, Humphrey said. "When we started this business, there was nothing really like it at the time. Birch syrup was a new thing. It has been exciting to see it grow into a recognized industry. People down South know about it now."

The Humphreys are members of the Alaska Birch Syrup Makers Association, which meets twice annually, usually by teleconference. The association also has a booth at the Alaska State Fair, to promote members' products.

Humphrey said their best sellers are Birch Boy Birch Syrup, Alaskan Wild Blueberry Syrup, Alaskan Highbush Cranberry Syrup and Russian American Cherry Syrup. Other varieties - 20 in all - include salmonberry, crab apple, red currant, strawberry, elderberry, rhubarb, and strawberry-rhubarb.

What makes Birch Boy different than some other birch syrup products produced in Alaska is it takes 150 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of pure Birch Boy syrup, because of the trees they work with, Humphrey said.

"At this point, our fruit syrup sales definitely equal birch syrup sales," Humphrey said. This is good because while Birch Boy has enough products in stock, the family took a break from harvesting birch sap this spring.

"Our weather was not good," she said. "We also felt our trees probably needed a break. We had a drought last summer and an insect infestation, which caused the trees to turn brown. They look pretty good this year, but we found that was a stressful thing, and we didn't want the trees to be stressed."

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