Birch Syrup and Planes
~Sunday, August 28, 2022~
Day 69 of Alaska Trip
We’re taking in all that sunshine since the majority of our days in Alaska have come with wet weather. But it would be short-lived as by afternoon, the clouds made their way back. And these were not just any clouds; massive thunderheads,
one of which we’d never seen so big. I think it’s time for my “sun dance” to keep that rain away for our early morning flight adventure scheduled for tomorrow. In fact, we are so excited about this tour that we drove to the spot where we’ll be taking off from tomorrow. Seeing a busy hub is always a good sign and it sure looks like a well run operation.
It was so fun watching the planes take off and land with their excited passengers (the planes look a lot bigger than we imagined which I guess is a good thing….I’ve always been nervous about the small ones).
Rarely going out for breakfast, we decided to check out a local restaurant just outside the touristy town of Talkeetna. The Flying Squirrel Cafe had a wonderful atmosphere, and the food, solid.
We split a salmon/cream cheese/microgreens bagel and salmon quiche. But the home run was their freshly baked breads, muffins and pastries, so we couldn’t leave without purchasing an olive oil baguette and 2 decadent looking cranberry/oatmeal muffins to go for tomorrow morning’s breakfast. At least they’re of the healthy variety.
Just a few miles down the Talkeetna Highway, we paid a visit to the Alaska Birch Syrup and Wild Harvest shop. You know immediately you’re at the right place
as you spot the plastic tubing which runs tree to tree and the white buckets that dangle from them (maybe these are for demonstration purposes only since harvest is over).
Entering their shop, it’s all things syrup but they also have candies, jams, and sauces that are also made from the sweet treat. Interested in learning more, we were led to the back area where the process takes place. We first watched a short video on the family run business and what it takes to make such a magnificent product. Dulce and husband Michael began their modest operation back in 1990 tapping about 200 trees. Today, they tap up to 11,000. The gal that conducted our tour also helps with harvest/production and boy did she know her stuff. The journey from raw product to bottle begins in Alaska’s boreal forests, which are a mix of birch and spruce trees….ideal for sustainable syrup production. It’s very different from maple syrup in taste, but also in the way it’s produced…..a very difficult procedure. Worldwide production of birch syrup is less than 5,000 gallons per year. Currently, Talkeetna is the world’s largest producer, making about 1,000 to 1,300 gallons annually. Here are some interesting facts about birch syrup production at their facility:
1️⃣It takes on average, 110 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of birch syrup. Maple syrup, by comparison, averages 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup.
2️⃣The sap, which looks more like water, contains only 1 to 1-½% sugar (they actually sell birch water as a beverage). Boiling down and concentrating the sugar to 67% gives the syrup its color and distinct flavor
3️⃣They do collect sap by traditional methods (tap and pail techniques), but are transitioning over to a tubing/vacuum system.
4️⃣Every year, 11,000 to 15,000 trees are tapped in the Talkeetna area. They keep a close eye on sap levels in the trees with harvest usually beginning in April. If they tap too early or too late they’re sunk. The season only lasts 3 weeks. When everything’s just right, it’s like “GO!!!!” A little like grape harvest in Napa Valley.
5️⃣Does tapping the trees injure them? They only tap 7% to 10% of the tree’s total sap production and never tap more than 7 years on any one tree. Sustainability is of the utmost importance so they only do one-tap-per-tree a year and do not plug the holes at the end of harvest as it has been shown to impede the natural healing of the tree.
6️⃣A reverse osmosis machine removes up to 90% of the water before the boiling stage occurs. Getting the sugar to 10% through this machine makes for greater efficiency when it goes through the evaporator process to get the sugars to their 67% concentration level.
Eventually we were able to see for ourselves just how good this stuff is. No wonder they call it “Kahiltna Gold”. We sampled 4 birch syrups, all with a unique character entirely their own. Our favorite was the first one which tasted more like molasses…..rich and delicious. The middle 2 were a bit more tangy (great for salad dressings or marinades), and the 4th one, the “reserve” which tasted like cashmere…whatever that tastes like. Heaven! I think she said they’re down to only 3 gallons until next season. We can see why!
Just as we were in the gift shop choosing our favorite bottle to take home, a tour bus showed up. Did we time our visit right or what? We chose the Kahiltna Gold “early harvest” syrup and a jar of Lingonberry Jam (harvested from their land as well). And they ship too, making it ever so convenient to keep up the supply in our pantry. They even gave us a printout of a few recipes that we can’t wait to try……Salmon With Orange/Birch Syrup Glaze. That will be one amazing meal with our frozen Kachemak Bay salmon and our treasure of syrup from Talkeetna.
On the way back into town, we spotted a float plane company and
decided to stop by as it brought back memories of Jeff’s dad’s experience on their trip to Alaska so many years ago. It was the highlight of their trip for sure. Once we arrived to Main Street, we finished up th sightseeing that we didn’t get to finish yesterday. The town seemed a bit busier than yesterday. We made a return visit to Denali Brewing Mercantile since Jeff had had his eye on a particular t-shirt he wanted. I must admit, they do have a cool logo! The same gal was working today and just had to tell her how much I loved the earrings I’d purchased the other day. While Jeff tried to decide on the right color of shirt, we launched into a discussion of flying. Evidently, she comes from a long line of aviation pilots, herself included; even acrobatic flying. Wow!
Our last stop was the Talkeetna Cemetery just on the outskirts of town. With wildflowers dispersed throughout, it felt more like a pleasurable, English garden, than a place for the dead. Among the resting souls are bush pilots, men and women who served our country, family members and climbers who perished trying to climb Denali.
There is even one section (sort of like a shrine), completely dedicated to the men and women who met their fate on the foreboding mountain. The inscriptions moved us the most with their tender messages to those no longer a part of this life. For example, one read, “Here lives the memory of Ray Genet-mountaineer and man-let all who read this know that this man never said I quit…”to the summit”. There must have been over 100 climbers mentioned, some as young as 15 years old. In one instance, it was 3 siblings. Paying a visit to any cemetery always shakes me up a bit as it reminds me of my own mortality, not knowing when it will come, but a wake-up call to appreciate each day that we’re given.