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Editorial: Birch syrup? Weird, but maybe wonderful, too

On Big Rock Candy Mountain, so the old hobo song goes, there were cigarette trees, lemonade springs, and “a lake of gin, we can both jump in, and the handouts grow on bushes.” Lately, it’s starting to seem like that mythical mountain has real-life counterparts in New Hampshire, what with reports of people making sweet and oh-so-expensive syrup from white birch trees and, in some places, from black walnut trees.

Associated Press reporter Holly Ramer recently found New Hampshire’s only birch syrup producer, a Lee farmer named David Moore whose sticky business started as his senior project while a student at the University of New Hampshire. Moore tested the sweetness of the sap from several species of native birch trees – New Hampshire has six: white, gray, yellow, black, river and heartleaf – and found white birch sap to be the sweetest.

Sweetness is, of course, relative. White birch sap is less than half as sweet as sap from sugar maples. Boiling down 40 gallons of maple sap, on average, will yield one gallon of syrup. To get a gallon of white birch syrup, however, requires boiling down more than 100 gallons of sap. That makes for a lot of work, requires a lot of fuel and means that birch syrup commands a big price. Moore’s Crooked Chimney Sugarhouse sells it for $300 per gallon or $25 per 8-ounce bottle, when he has it.

Having taken a match to a piece of white birch bark and gotten a whiff of the overpowering turpentine smell made us wonder why anyone would pay money to taste birch syrup – so we were desperate to try it. We were left with tasting spoon frozen in mid-air. Moore is completely sold out of last year’s production, and this season’s won’t be ready for weeks.

Moore describes the taste as “very molasses-y.” Others describe it as sweet, though not as sweet as maple syrup, with a fruity, tangy taste.

White birch trees have been tapped to make syrup since Colonial times, according to the late Sanborn Brown of Henniker, a Dartmouth graduate, MIT dean, physics professor, brewer, vinter and author of Wines and Beers of Old New England, a How-to-Do-It History. More often, however, colonists put their drills to betula niger, the sweet or black birch, whose bark is nearly identical to that of the cherry tree. Break off a fresh twig and chew it, and which is which becomes clear in an instant. Black birch tree twigs taste like wintergreen and were used as toothbrushes by Native Americans. The tree’s twigs and sap were used by colonists, and in modern times by editorialists, to make a wintergreen-scented birch beer.

Birch trees begin running about the time maple trees dry up, so researchers at Cornell University and the University of Vermont are experimenting to see whether they could boost the region’s agricultural economy with a whole new market for syrup makers, farmers and woodlot owners. Some are also turning a hungry eye to walnut trees, which are said to produce a syrup one researcher described as sweet as maple syrup but lighter and with butterscotch overtones. It, too, is almost impossible to find.

Curious syrup lovers can either wait until the new industry develops or, if they have access to woods, gather some buckets, spiles, a bit, brace and mallet. They’ll discover that in season the handouts do grow on bushes and the sweetness flows from trees.

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