When she was seven Kathy Poljanski didn’t know a birch from a butternut. But she was raised on a farm and farm kids seem to learn things through osmosis, especially when their parents are good teachers.
Around the corner on the Kenilworth Sideroad Bert Beilke was growing up on a family farm with a large maple bush. At an early age young Beilke could be found right in the thick of things helping with the spring harvest in the sugar bush.
As fairy tale stories go, these two kids went to the same school, chummed together, and eventually married. Bert and Kathy are both naturalists and enjoy educating themselves about the outdoors and utilizing what nature has to offer. They purchased a farm close to his parents so everyone could work together.
Fast forward several years – three sons and a daughter have been added to the mix. They garden, raise chickens, press their own cider, and are avid fishing and hunting enthusiasts. Throughout the 1990s they tapped approximately 275 maple trees in “grampa’s” sugar bush, and bottled and sold commercially for six years. Unfortunately that came to a halt when declining health forced the senior Beilke to sell that portion of his farm.
There wasn’t a maple bush on Bert’s own farm but in the lowlands there is a 50-acre stand of yellow birch trees. Common sense and research told them this was not an opportunity to lie idle. Surprisingly enough, when thoroughly studied, one finds that native people knew the benefits of birch but it seems to have become overshadowed by the sweetness of maple syrup.
Birch water is pure birch tree sap. It’s a 100% natural drink that people in Europe have been enjoying for centuries. Birch is a natural detox product which stimulates the cleansing systems of the kidney and liver functions, and helps to eliminate toxins from the body. Birch contains micro-nutrients which are said to strengthen the immune system, lower cholesterol, and assist with weight loss. It’s also from the birch tree that the healthful Chaga mushroom grows.
With all that information at hand it was an easy decision for the Beilke’s to look to their yellow birch bush for a new adventure. One might think it would be a simple transition from maple sap collection to birch but although the mechanics might be similar, the equipment isn’t. Birch does not like aluminum, lead or tin so the old collection utensils couldn’t be used. They had to invest in plastic taps, pails and lines, but were able to continue with some of the stainless steel pans and evaporators.
The first trial sap run was in April of 2013. There are very few birch producers and those who are in the business tap primarily white birch. Sap runs later in the spring than maple as it prefers slightly warmer weather. A normal season lasts about 18 days usually beginning mid-April. Birch sap has a 120:1 water to sugar ratio while maple is 40:1. Another difference is that while maple sap is boiled at high temperatures for a short time, birch sap is heated at moderate temperatures for a longer duration. Maple sap is mostly sucrose sugar while birch is a combination of fructose and glucose. As a result birch is better on the diabetic plate.
The heating process takes 80 to 130 litres of sap to boil down to one litre of syrup. After the first run was processed the resulting syrup was found to be entirely different to Maple syrup. Kathy describes the taste as molasses and caramel with a touch of balsamic. It has a complex flavor unlike the sweetness of maple syrup. Not exactly sure how it should taste, Bert ordered some syrup from Quebec for comparison. They were pleasantly surprised to find that they liked their own better.
During 2013 Kathy left her 23 year career in the healthcare field. She focuses on the farm business and the marketing of the birch syrup. On the side she’s a volunteer driver for Family and Children’s Services. Bert’s mother, who at 93 had still been living on the same property, sold the family farm and moved in with the younger Beilke’s. Now 96 she’s still fairly active and enjoys getting out to the gardens to weed or just sit and enjoy the environment.
Thirty litres of birch syrup were produced in 2014. That doesn’t sound like a great deal for a season but this delicacy isn’t something you douse your pancakes with. Birch Syrup is an “ingredient” food, used more as an additive to dressings, sauces, marinades and glazes. A recipe for scones calls for only one tablespoon of birch syrup. The syrup can also be used as a natural sweetener for coffee. It’s a bit of a pricey product but has been endorsed by chefs in high end restaurants. Birch Syrup is a versatile ingredient that can be used in both sweet and savory dishes for gourmet cooking.
In 2015 a reverse osmosis machine (a process in which dissolved inorganic solids (such as salts) are removed from a solution (such as water) was added to the assembly line. 70 litres of syrup were produced last year. This year they expanded to 200 trees which is about 2/3 potential of the woodlot. A gravity-flow tubing system was added to the collection sites. Backward wet or cold early springs don’t affect the sap run as birch season doesn’t start till later with warmer temperatures.
Kathy Beilke applies labels to the bottles by hand with stickers she designed herself advertising the Wagram Springs product. The area where the farm is located was once known as the hamlet of Wagram. The word ‘springs’ was added because their farm is where some of the headwaters meet.
Kathy does most of the marketing. Their initial contact was during an event put on by Wellington County called “Source it Here” held at the Ignatius College in Guelph. There they displayed the first of the birch syrup. They met Paul Sawtell, owner of 100Km Foods Inc. from Toronto. He was interested in carrying their birch product for availability to Chefs and Restaurants that he supplies with local food in the GTA. The Beilke’s were invited to the Sawtell company Meet & Greet held in the downtown financial district of Toronto where they met John Horne & Coulson Armstrong, Chefs from the renowned Canoe Restaurant. That was a lucky break and those chefs have now been using Wagram Springs Birch Syrup for two years. It is very exciting for them to be a supplier to a place such as the Canoe Restaurant (54th floor TD Bank Tower). Kathy enjoys exhibiting at different events and trade shows and talking about their birch syrup because it’s so new to everyone.
Beilke admits some of the vendor booths can be quite costly to participate …but she feels that they need to continually market the products because birch syrup is relatively unheard of in this region of Ontario. Whether sales are good or not she usually makes new contacts.
Once the sap lines were producing favorably the Beilke’s started investigating other products to add to the Wagram Springs line. Birch water is 100% pure birch sap and makes a refreshing drink.
They currently have a chef in Waterloo who produces custom caramels using their birch syrup. His quality is delicious as the recipe he uses hails from the French artisan technique using natural ingredients, copper pot and wooden spoon! Eventually they will expand into other hard candy and chocolates. There are no plans at this time to enter into a line of natural cosmetic products such as salves, soaps or scrubs.
Up and coming news is that they are taking part in the International Plowing Match in September as part of the Wellington County Showcase tent and Taste of Wellington. They will be paired with Chef, Shea from Miijidaa Restaurant in Guelph for part of the meal!
For a highlight of the year the Beilke’s will be part of an agrifood mission group which will be representing Wellington County and travelling to France to attend the SIAL Food Show in October (an international food and beverage trade show). SIAL Canada is not only key to the agrifood industry; it’s also a privileged entryway to U.S. and international markets.
Talk about ‘savor the flavor’ – the Beilke family has come a long way in a few short years to promote an unknown natural and organic product.