Birch syrup is used in a variety of Alaska products, including jams and jellies, craft beer, candies and baked goods.
Alaska has long been known for its Gold Rush era history, but little know about a different type of gold that shows up every spring - birch syrup.
The upper Susitna Valley is the largest birch syrup producing region in the world, and its hitting the peak of its production right now. Just as the snow starts to melt, but before the trees bud out, the trees yield incredible amounts of sap that is ultimately cultivated and turned into an array of birch syrup products. This year's mild winter and early spring has allowed people to start the process earlier than typical.
Small taps are put into the trees around this time of year (it doesn't hurt the trees or the tree's lifespan), and the sap is collected in buckets. One local company, Kahiltna Birchworks, has an intricate collection process that uses hoses, some of which are gravity fed, that encompasses acres and acres of wildland.
But only if it were that easy. Like it's cousin, maple syrup, birch sap has to be processed through a number of steps, including evaporation. The biggest difference is the yield - for one gallon of maple syrup, 40 gallons of sap have to be processed, which sounds like a lot. Until you look at birch - it takes a whopping 100 gallons of sap to produce just one gallon of syrup! The end result is a spicy-sweet tasting syrup that is quite versatile.
The syrup is great on pancakes or waffles, but personally, I'm addicted to the birch syrup caramel candies. Other products birch syrup is being used in include marinades, glazes, baked goods, ice cream and yes, even locally crafted beer. There really isn't an end to the uses of birch syrup in cooking applications, and local chefs are expanding their offerings using the syrup all the time.
Many retailers around the Mat-Su Valley sell birch syrup products, or you can stop in at Kahiltna Birchworks' studio on the Talkeetna Spur Road during the summer. There, they have samples available, as well as a brief tour that gives visitors a peek into the process that it takes to turn the birch sap into tasty goodness.