The chartreuse leaves of the birch tree are one of the first signs of spring in Southcentral Alaska. But for a few weeks before the leaves unfurl the trees offer a sweet treat –a watery liquid that when tapped and boiled down turns into a rich, nutty syrup. Birch syrup is becoming a favorite flavor in the state’s budding local food scene.
At Wild Scoops test kitchen, near downtown Anchorage, an ice cream machine whirs as Elissa Brown prepares to drizzle birch syrup into chilled sweet cream.
The artisanal ice cream company started in 2015, making locally inspired ice creams and sorbets. Brown said one of the most exciting parts her job is formulating the flavors.
“We have made so many flavors. We are always making new ones,” Brown said. “We have probably about 25 in the kitchen at any given time, but hundreds in our repertoire.”
Some use local products – locally-baked chocolate treats for example – to create rich concoctions with Alaska-themed names like, Sitka Swirl and Turnagain Mud Flats. Others are made with wild ingredients only found in the far north, like Spruce Tip and Wild Berry Kombucha Sorbet.
Brown said those wild-crafted, local ingredients are key, like late run birch syrup, which she uses in several ice creams.
“It’s a really nice balance of the creaminess of the vanilla and the sharpness of the birch which is sort of unexpected,” Brown said. “It is not quite like maple syrup, it is not like balsamic syrup, it is not like molasses, but it is something that is totally unique and very Alaskan.”
Brown said the idea for the birch syrup ice cream came early on, when they were approached by a small company in Homer, Bridge Creek Birch Syrup.
About 200 miles south of Anchorage, on a cool spring morning at the bottom of a hillside overlooking the town of Homer and Kachemak Bay, clear birch sap empties through a series of PVC pipes, down the hillside and into a giant holding tank in the back of a pickup truck.
Jake Beaudoin collects liquid sap from birch trees into hundreds of gallon plastic bags then after 24 hours empties the bags into five gallon buckets.
“It is just a bunch of tubing and we collect into five-gallon buckets and haul it over and dump it in the barrel and then it all gravity feeds down into the truck tank, right here,” Beaudoin said.
Turning the clear watery sap of the birch into a nutty, sweet syrup though, is a huge process, powered by fire. There’s a giant wood stove. If Beaudoin were doing this in the olden days, this would be a wood stove with a pot on top, but it’s a little more complicated than that.
“Yeah, that’s pretty much it. It’s just a big, forced air stove – it’s two feet wide and six feet long,” Beaudoin said.
Back at a small building near Beaudoin’s house, birch sap flows from the 300-gallon collection tank into a custom-made boiler inside the shop he endearingly calls the evapatorium.
“As the sap flows in, it’s constantly being evaporated off at 50 gallons an hour,” Beaudoin said. “So, we are adding 50 gallons of new sap every hour as it is evaporating. So, it is constantly concentrating and all the sugars are flowing through these different compartments and they all get pushed forward and pushed forward until it reaches the front bay.”
What started off as a hobby for he and his partner, Anna Meredith, has turned into a small business that takes over their lives for two or three weeks each spring.
“The big thing with maple and birch that people do not realize is that it takes twice the amount of sap to make a gallon of syrup,” Meredith said. “So, it is definitely a different creature—it’s different nutrients, different minerals cause it’s a different tree.”
Meredith, traveled to the first ever international birch syrup conference held in the Adirondacks in upstate New York in 2015, where their syrup took first place in the late-run category.
Once it is finished off on the propane burner, the syrup is cooled and emptied into jugs and smaller bottles for food businesses like Wild Scoops in Anchorage. Elissa Brown said the local treat is doing more than just adding flavor to their ice cream.
“The birch syrup is just a small part about what we do, but I think it captures our love for this sense of place, our love for Alaska and this growing excitement about using products that grow here,” Brown said. “Using products and ingredients and wild ingredients that are unique to Alaska.”
Brown said the ice cream company is expanding from their smaller test kitchen off Gambell to a storefront location downtown this summer, and at least two birch-themed flavors will be on the menu.