Prove your humanity

Sugar maples aren’t the only sappy trees that can be tapped to make syrup. Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb visited syrup producer David Moore in New Hampshire to taste and learn about syrups made from birch, beech, walnut, and other trees.

LISTEN to the story

David Moore leads the way down a wide dirt path on his farm in Lee, New Hampshire. The path is lined on either side by stone walls built by farmers more than 200 years ago in the typical New England style. Those farmers were likely tapping maple trees this time of year. A skill no doubt learned from Native Americans in the region who have a long tradition with maple syrup. But David Moore is turning centuries of syrup making on its head.

“So, I have five beech trees tapped here, American beech,” he said. “You need a vacuum pump to extract sap. Maple and birch, the sap will come out of the tree without a vacuum but other species you need a vacuum.”

Light blue plastic tubes jut out from each of the five beech trees in this stand. Another tube runs through a vacuum pump covered by an inverted plastic bin and into a plastic bucket.

Moore takes the top of the bucket. Inside, a couple of inches of frozen beech sap.

“Maybe one gallon or so,” he explained. “So this is about what I’ve been getting from these trees.”

Moore had more luck tapping a different set of beech trees last year and got a lot more sap. Still, he’ll need something like 200 gallons of beech sap to get one gallon of syrup. The sugar content for good old maple syrup is far more concentrated — it takes just 40 gallons of maple sap to make a gallon of syrup.

“So nothing will replace maples, but it’ll certainly add some value to your operation if you can do it,” he said.

And that’s Moore’s goal here. For his Ph.D. work at the University of New Hampshire, he wants to figure out the best trees, other than maple, to tap and make syrup. It could be useful information for maple syrup producers in the region. They could use their existing equipment to tap other kinds of trees on their land and make more money.

“Just getting a little more value out of your woods and especially with beech,” he said. “Beech around here is thought to be just a really weedy kind of a nuisance species, and if there’s a good use for it, then… yeah, just good for the producer.”

More than 20 different species of trees can be used to make syrup. Here on the farm, Moore is experimenting with basswood, poplar, hickory, sycamore, and beech. Right now most alternative syrups are a lot more expensive than maple, largely because that sap to syrup ratio is so much higher. Still, Moore says there is a niche market for his syrups.

“I would sell to farmers markets in the beginning and specialty food stores, several different restaurants, and also a lot of mail orders,” he said.

Harvesting sap from a birth tree

Harvesting sap from a birch tree. Maple trees are not the only sources to make syrup. (Photo: Ole Husby, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

I’ve never had anything other than maple syrup. So to see what I’ve been missing out on, Moore invites me to try birch syrup that he made and some beech syrup from upstate New York from his friend Mike. I try birch first.

It looks really really dark, much darker and thicker than maple syrup usually is. It’s different. It’s definitely sweet, but also not at the same time, somehow. It’s got a familiar flavor that I can’t quite put my finger on, maybe molasses.

“It’s nice as a glaze on red meat and salmon,” he offers. “And it’s also nice if you mix it with olive oil and balsamic vinegar to make a salad dressing.”

Next is beech. It’s a lot more like maple syrup. I wouldn’t think this isn’t maple syrup if you’ve put this on a pancake and gave it to me.

Walnut syrup tastes a lot like maple with a little more nuttiness to it, according to Moore. “But yeah, birch is pretty different, sycamore I would say is pretty different. So, yeah, cool. I’m glad you like them.”

Even before Moore finishes his Ph.D. at the University of New Hampshire he may find his research is in high demand. With the changing climate, maple syrup production can be a lot more variable, making alternatives more attractive.

I hear sycamore actually tastes like butterscotch or honey but there wasn’t any ready yet for me to try. Maybe next time.