This article is a guest post written by local artist and writer Marcus Jackson of Luckyjack Press. In the spring of 2015 Marcus ventured out the Ingraham Trail to the Arctic Harvest Birch Syrup open house. This is his recount of it. If you are interested in writing a guest post, contact us here.
The sugar shack is where sap becomes syrup through a process of boiling
One of Yellowknife’s favourite sweet treats is birch syrup. Arctic Harvest was born in 2010 when two friends decided to work with the Dene First Nation to create their Sapsucker Birch Syrup. In just five short years, they now create 4 different syrups, birch butter, and Boreal blend tea. They tap over 400 birch trees every year from a healthy birch stand just a few kilometres north and west of Yellowknife.
The birch trees tapped for the syrup are some of the tallest trees around Yellowknife.
400 trees are tapped every year. Each section of the grove has a name.
Tapping birch trees for sap is not new, the Dene people have harvested sap for generations. Traditionally they would collect it and boil it over a fire to make something similar to what we know today as syrup. Birch sap has a unique flavour which is stronger and more bitter than maple. It is excellent for cooking and delicious on ice cream or on warm bannock.
Arctic Harvest hosts an open house at the birch camp where they harvest the birch sap to make syrup. This is part of their educational programming which introduces the public to the process and the product. A trip to the birch camp is a popular field trip for many elementary school classes in Yellowknife.
Youngsters enjoying some of the food available to try at the Sapsucker Open House.
The first step is, of course, to collect the birch sap. Healthy trees are tapped by drilling a small hole through the bark and hammering a spigot into the hole that directs the sap into a bucket. Sap is clear when it flows from the tree and tastes like water. Only about 5% of the sap is collected from any one tree.
Birch sap is clear when it comes out of the tree. Only about 5% of the sap is taken from any one tree.
The tree sap drips into pails and is collected once a day to be processed.
Sap is collected every day and poured into a large cistern. From here the sap undergoes reverse osmosis that removes a lot of the water. The concentrated liquid is then gravity fed into a large boiler in the sugar shack.
After removing some of the water through reverse osmosis, the sap is gravity fed from the collection cistern into the primary boiler.
Birch sap after the first boil, starting to look more like syrup.
The sugar shack is where sap is boiled to become syrup. The large boiler removed the majority of the water and the liquid starts to resemble syrup. The gold-coloured liquid is collected and poured into a second boiler. Birch sap undergoes at least two boils to remove water and further concentrate the sugar content. The second boil is done in a double boiler so the sugar in the liquid doesn’t burn.
The double boiler concentrates the sugar by boiling off the last of the water.
The “sugaring off” process is what results in syrup. Birch sap results in less syrup at the end of the process because birch sap has a lower concentration of sugar than maple sap. 400 gallons of birch sap make just 5-6 gallons of syrup.
The open house is an opportunity to see the entire process. People are free to wander through the grove and enjoy the sites and sounds of the forest. A few volunteers offered guided tours of the grove every hour or so. Other volunteers wound bannock onto thick branches and visitors are invited to take one and cook it over the campfire while enjoying fiddle music provided by local youngsters. Once it’s baked, you can slather it with birch butter and a drizzle of syrup. There is also free tea, apple and banana fritters, and an opportunity to purchase a bottle of syrup before heading home.
My campfire bannock cooked on a stick over an open fire.
I filled the warm bread with birch butter and drizzled it with birch syrup. So delicious.
The Sapsucker open house usually takes place near the end of May. It’s a great way to welcome spring, learn about a traditional activity, and get outside to enjoy some tasty local food. If you’re in Yellowknife be sure to pick up a bottle of syrup at the Visitor’s Centre, Down to Earth Gallery, or at the airport gift shop.