Birch trees are explorers. A pioneer species, they will colonise bare ground where little else grows, sparking an increase in biodiversity. Jim Mann of North Pennine Birch taps birch trees for their sap in his woodland, a forest regenerated in part by the very trees he utilises.
He has brought his love of nature and knowledge of ecology, combined with his business know-how, to a patch of wild high in the Pennines, and now produces birch syrup for retail and restaurants. Locavore spoke with Jim about birch syrup, biodiversity, and his favourite recipes.
You’re the first commercial birch syrup producers in the UK. What was the path that brought you to this project?
A long while ago I did a degree in ecology and I am an environmentalist as a result. After that I set up a few small businesses, and then started to look for opportunities to do environmental good alongside a new business. I became interested in forest-based businesses, especially food businesses, as I enjoy good food. Eventually came across birch syrup. I tried some from other producers and it was really nice, so I set about finding a small area of woodland and did my first production run in 2017. Any spare time I get I spend up in the hills and mountains, so having a business that combines being outside, working in nature, making a great product, and doing environmental good, is perfect for me.
How do you produce your birch syrup?
We tap the trees to collect the sap when it’s rising in the spring. We then use a two-stage process to remove the water, concentrate the minerals and sugars, and produce syrup at the end of the process. The first stage is to use reverse osmosis, which in effect squeezes the water out of the sap. Then we gently heat the concentrated sap to reduce it until it is syrup. It’s a tricky and time consuming process, but the syrup makes it all worth while.
What part do the birch trees play in the ecosystem in which they grow?
The trees are the dominant species in the woodland where we tap, and this is naturally regenerated woodland. We try and have as little impact on the existing ecosystem as possible. We leave other species of trees in the forest as they help support the biodiversity, which keeps a healthy forest for the plants and animals that live there. A healthy forest is good for us too. The birch trees are the cornerstone species in this ecosystem so are really important for everything else.
Does tapping the sap affect the trees in any way?
Not so long as you don’t over-tap the trees. Typically we are taking 5% of the trees’ sap production for the year, and the trees have really good reserves. Where trees are tapped with care and the sap is not over-harvested there is no difference between tapped trees and untapped trees. Our aim is to ensure we never over-harvest so we always have a sustainable operation.
What reactions have you had to your product?
A lot of people in the UK have never heard of birch syrup, and assume it’s going to be like maple syrup. Which in some ways it is, but birch syrup has a far more complex flavour profile, and is therefore suitable for a broader range of uses. Almost everyone that has tried it really likes it.
Maple syrup is very sweet, and I really like it, but it doesn’t have the complexity to it that birch has. This makes birch syrup much more versatile. It can be used neat as a drizzle or dressing and this really plays on the acidic sweetness, but it also makes a great ingredient in everything from salad dressings through to pasta dishes, as well as desserts. I really enjoy it as a cocktail ingredient. It’s a unique set of flavours, and can be used in many different ways as a result.
Birch ‘water’ – the sap – has been touted as a ‘superdrink’, with many producers springing up in the last few years. Why did you decide to produce and sell syrup rather than the sap itself?
I am personally a little uncomfortable with the whole bottled water market, and I view birch water in the same way. We are needlessly shipping huge quantities of liquid around the planet and burning a lot of fossil fuel in the process. With syrup we process on site and move less than 1% of the sap at the end of the process (it takes between 120 and 150 litres of birch sap to make one litre of birch syrup). Instead of the single-use packaging used for birch water, we ship in reusable packaging and encourage people to reuse the bottles. It’s far more environmentally sound and a number of our customers mix birch syrup with still or fizzy water, to make a super drink cordial alternative to birch water.
How does sustainability inform the other aspects of your business?
Sustainability is very important to me personally. When we negotiated our new lease we asked that we were able to harvest wood from a local sustainable source – it’s on the same site, only about 100 metres away from our processing facility. This has enabled us to run our evaporators on a locally harvested, sustainable wood source, with all other power needs hopefully being provided by renewable energy (although we do have a generator for back-up until we are confident). We want to set the very best possible standards of sustainability, and we are prepared to go the extra mile to achieve this.
With such a limited harvest, are you planning on expansion? I imagine this would be a challenge.
Funny you should mention that, but yes we are expanding. Three days ago we signed a new lease on a much larger forest so we can increase production 200-fold this coming year. There is a huge amount for us to get done if we are to harvest from the entire site this coming spring, but that is the aim.
Do you have a favourite recipe using birch syrup?
I have a few but there are two really simple ones that are great…
1 unit birch syrup
1 unit extra virgin olive oil
1 unit balsamic vinegar
1 unit freshly squeezed lime juice
Fresh ground sea salt and pepper + some favourite herbs (dill, mint, basil, oregano, etc.) to taste
Add all ingredients together and mix – for best results shake in a jar with tight-fitting lid.
Birch and ginger Bourbon:
1 shot birch syrup
2 shots bourbon
1.5cm square fresh ginger
75ml orange juice
Slice of orange
Peel and finely chop the ginger. Put all the ingredients except the slice of orange in cocktail shaker with crushed ice and shake well. Sieve into a glass over ice cubes, and garnish with the slice of orange.
Finally, why do you do what you do?
I love being outdoors, I love the environment, and I love birch syrup. I’m really proud of what we produce and the way we produce it, and that is very satisfying. Over the coming years we will look to add other woodland products that are natural, environmentally sound, and in keeping with our core values. If I can build a business that is good for my customers, good for the planet, and good for me, then I am very happy.
Find North Pennine Birch on Twitter here.
For their website, click here.