TALKEETNA -- At first glance, the setup at Kahiltna Birchworks seems like something out of a sci-fi movie. There are thousands of white 5-gallon buckets hanging off of trees, all filled with a clear, watery liquid that slowly oozes from the white birch trees. That same clear liquid gurgles and bubbles through the tubes toward a central collection point, a small, plywood building housing a humming diesel pump that sucks the liquid into a nearby 2,500-gallon collection drum.
Other areas of these woods have well-marked trails with names like "Yellow Brick Road" for the "sap suckers," a group of five people who travel through the boreal forest just off of the Parks Highway, north of the Talkeetna Spur Road, collecting sap. Each sap sucker is responsible for 850 trees, each tree produces just under a gallon of sap a day. The suckers collect hundreds of gallons of sap to boil down into the "Kahiltna Gold" birch syrup.
Lucy Rogers monitors the vacuum system as part of her duties. On a crisp evening in the woods last week, she was running back to headquarters with a Swiss Army knife and walkie-talkie strapped to her chest. She's from maple country in Vermont, where she worked for years making syrup. She' wore purple shorts, her legs lightly scratched from hours of moving through the brush-covered woods, checking the 20 miles of vacuum lines for any leaks. Giant mosquitos swarmed and landed on her, but she didn't budge to swat them.
"I'm used to it," she said.
Rogers is one of 13 workers this year, the largest crew ever according to Dulce Ben-East, co-owner of Kahiltna Birchworks. Ben-East and her husband, Michael East, started boiling down birch sap at their Kahiltna River homestead in 1990. Now, 25 years later, the family has moved onto the road system and done a major overhaul of the way they make produce birch syrup in Alaska.
Gone are their woodsy beginnings at a rural homestead on the Kahiltna River with only a couple hundred tapped trees and a birchwood-fired evaporator. Now it's a full-scale operation with a 20-foot-long diesel-powered stainless steel evaporator that cooks hundreds of gallons of syrup a day, a process that for the birchworks employees is one of the surest signs of spring.
"It looks like chaos, but it's organized chaos," Ben-East said.
Those 13 people will spend the next 20 days working almost nonstop, waking early in the morning to collect sap from the 10,000 trees they have tapped nearby, processing the sap of another 6,000 from neighbors, and eventually boiling down the liquid.
It's a herculean task to make birch syrup. Last year, Kahiltna collected about 150,000 gallons of sap, enough to cook up a mere 1,500 gallons of syrup.
As demand keeps growing, Kahiltna is working to keep up. Ben-East said they hope make 2,000 gallons of syrup this spring to fill orders for a birch syrup soda maker in California and Midnight Sun Brewing Co., which uses the syrup to brew its beer.
Each year, the company sells its entire supply of syrup. That makes the three short weeks they have to collect all the sap a crucial period. Ben-East said they hope for cooler temperatures, which allow the sap to run longer -- because once the leaves come out, it's over.
MAKING IT WORK
For Ben-East, the reason for making birch syrup is simple.
"It's delicious," she said from the front stoop of the Birchworks cabin last week as the dozen employees worked to transition the collection process from snowmachines to six-wheel all-terrain vehicles.
But the reasons for the couple's first forays into birch syrup might be a little more complicated. It started as just an opportunity to live off the land, using what they had around them at their remote homestead. Now it's a full-scale business, making not only syrup but a variety of birch products including caramels, jellies and mustards and other toppings.
The little cabin that serves as a visitor center is transformed each spring into a bunkhouse for the dozen or so workers who come to help make the syrup. Some are locals; others have worked making maple syrup and are looking to branch out.
It's hard not to compare birch syrup to maple. Both use sugary tree sap that's cooked down into syrup. Many of the cooking techniques and the machines used are the same.
Take a taste, though, and the two are wildly different. Birch syrup is generally darker in color, with a richer, more molasses-like taste than traditional maple syrup, complete with floral, woodsy undertones. Ben-East recommends putting it on a sourdough pancake, drizzling it on ice cream or using it as a glaze for salmon. Chefs across the state have taken note; even the esteemed Marx Brothers Cafe in Anchorage serves a birch butter pecan ice cream topped with the syrup.
The sheer manpower required to make birch syrup is tremendous. It takes about 100 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, compared to about 40 gallons of maple sap.
There's plenty of science behind the process. The sap first goes through a reverse osmosis machine to concentrate the sugars up to about 10 percent. That concentrated sap -- which requires less cooking than the unconcentrated sap -- is then slowly boiled in the evaporator, pushing the sugars up to a thick 67 percent.
For all the science behind the syrup, there are still some things Ben-East doesn't know. Like why the sugars in the sap change as the season progresses. It starts out mostly sucrose and then slowly shifts to only fructose toward the end of the season. The minerals in the sap change, too, Ben-East said. As the season progresses, the syrup goes from a light, golden color to a much darker tone.
While birch syrup is produced in other places, mostly in Canada, there is no regulation in place for the product. In 1993, Ben-East and a few other producers held a symposium at which they set guidelines for birch syrup, but they were never formalized.
Now Ben-East is looking to create a "standard of identity" for birch syrup through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It would be similar to the standards for maple syrup, which has different classes for different varieties.
People who think they don't like birch syrup may just have had bad syrup in the past, Ben-East said. Some producers would mix their birch syrup with other types of sugar or honey. Some would even take birch leaves, boil them in sugar water and call it birch syrup.
Those lower quality manufacturers make it hard on everyone else, Ben-East said: "It hurts everybody."
That's why Kahiltna has been open about sharing its birch practices with anyone interested in making syrup. Harmony Tomaszeski, owner of Sample Alaska, a Fairbanks-based birch syrup producer, said East and Ben-East have been completely willing to help manage the learning curve.
Tomaszeski, her husband, Frank, and five children run their operation out of Fairbanks and tapped 800 trees last year.
"People will ask me, 'What are you doing for such little product?'" she said. "Well, it's fun, it's outside, it's beautiful, it's Alaska. We're not sure how we would make food without it."
Plus, she added: "If we don't make it, who will?"
That's a sentiment Dulce Ben-East can agree with.
"We'll always have our hands sticky," she said.
Reach Suzanna Caldwell at email@example.com
By SUZANNA CALDWELL