STARKSBORO, Vt. — High on a mountain in the narrow valley that’s home to Heffernan Family Sugarworks, clear birch sap is dripping from a tap in a tree, bending slightly in the wind blowing through a grove of birch. It’s a beautiful sunny day at the end of April, and the sap sparkles as Chas Smith, co-founder of Sap! cups his hand under the drip to gather a taste.
“It’s really light coming out of the tree,” Smith says, slurping the sap. “It just has a little bit of flavor. The difference between this and our finished product in the can is we’re actually concentrating the sap to bring out the flavor and also increase the nutrient profile of the sap.”
Smith, 28, and his partner and cousin, Nikita Salmon, also 28, launched Sap! in 2015 with maple sap soda and seltzer made in Vermont. Now the partners hope to pioneer a new category of beverages based on birch, rather than maple sap. Smith says Sap! is breaking new ground with the help of the Heffernans and a couple of neighboring sugar bushes that are supplying the birch sap.
“It’s different than maple,” he said. “It’s more of a raspberry taste is the term I’ve heard used a lot.”
“It’s a drink that’s decently popular in other parts of the world,” Smith said of birch sap flavored beverages.
Smith intends to make birch sap drinks popular here too, and got an early boost from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which gave him a $50,000 grant to kickstart the process with the Heffernans and their neighbors. Brian Heffernan, 28, tapped 600 birch trees initially with the help of the grant, and now has 4,200 trees tapped. That compares with 38,800 maple taps.
“The purpose of the grant was to give confidence to Brian and others to put in extra taps,” Smith explained. “It’s expensive to do and the market is unproven, but the USDA really thought, ‘Hey, this could be an amazing new product, a new working forest industry in Vermont.'”
Smith said Vermont has nearly as many birch trees as it does maple trees and the process for collecting the sap is the same.
Birch sap runs later than maple sap, with the birch running after the freeze/thaw cycle that triggers the maple sap to flow. The birch run only lasts about two weeks, and was basically over at the end of April.
Heffernan sees some challenges with birch sap in a maple syrup world.
With a fraction of the sugar content of maple sap, Heffernan says most people would decline to pour syrup made from birch sap on their pancakes.
“It’s not as sweet or smooth as maple,” he said. “It’s more for a meat glaze, more of a cooking substance.”
If birch syrup is unlikely to challenge the hegemony of maple syrup any time soon, Smith said the sap is performing very well as a flavor in soda and sparkling water in Sap!’s initial tests at a few local businesses like Healthy Living in South Burlington and Richmond Market & Beverage.
“When you think about the soft drink industry, there’s a lot of sugary stuff that’s not very good for you,” Smith said. “There are more seltzers coming out, but we wanted to put products on the market that when you drink them they actually make you healthier. That’s the innovation in this space.”
The Sap! birch drinks have just 25 calories and 6 grams of sugar and unlike pop and seltzer, deliver a combination of nutrients, minerals and vitamins, along with anti-oxidants, according to Smith.
Sap! is off to a good start with its maple drinks, doing about $300,000 in sales in its first full fiscal year. Smith expects to top $1 million this fiscal year, which just started. He says he and Salmon are living a “spartan” lifestyle as they plow their profits back into the company for growth.
“Our goal really is to create a whole new industry around birch in Vermont,” Smith said. “A lot of people could be tapping birch trees. Maybe it won’t be the size of the maple business because it makes a different kind of syrup, but you never know where it could go.”
Information from: The Burlington Free Press, http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com