Visitors to Jim Fowler’s Kispiox Valley property are greeted with an unfamiliar scene.
Clear-plastic tubes sprout from the trees that line the driveway and connect to tubs resting throughout the forest floor.
The lines look like they are feeding the trees but the reverse is true.
Each tube is connected to taps collecting a fresh-tasting clear liquid.
The scene has an air of science-fiction but the reality is more scientific.
Jim Fowler, a former fire chief who now works from his picturesque lakeside home in remote northern B.C., uses sap from the birch forest to make syrup which he sells as a culinary product.
For three weeks of the year he works around the clock to collect, reduce and thicken the sap from the birch trees on his property.
The process of repeatedly heating and filtering the sap requires Fowler to work in shifts, shifting the sap between stages around midnight and then again in the early hours of the morning.
The result is a dark mahogany-tinted syrup with a unique flavour that has notes of molasses.
Like maple, it can be used in glazes and baked goods, but Fowler would emphasize the two are completely different.
Birch syrup is much trickier to produce than its famed Canadian cousin and it can only be harvested for a short window of about three weeks.
“You actually get a sweeter syrup at the beginning [of the season], but at the end of the season what happens is your sap starts to get bitter, cloudy … and if you try to make stuff with it, it tastes awful,” he said.
“When we started selling our syrup at the farmers’ market some people would say, oh I’ve had birch syrup before, oh it’s terrible’.
“But that’s because those people try to do it at home with just one or two trees.”
Birch trees only produce about two litres a day but Fowler uses a 140-170 litre reduction ratio.
The process is meticulous. Sap collected from the trees is filtered multiple times and then reduced in a heating basin custom-made by Fowler.
When the sap in the basin reaches the right consistency the liquid is transferred to the stovetop, where the process becomes a juggling act.
A cacophony of alarms and beepers signal Fowler’s next move as he manages multiple saucepans holding syrup in various shades of gold, showing the different stages of production.
Some are ready to be filtered, others need to be tested for their sugar content, which indicates when the syrup is ready.
The finished syrup is bottled in three sizes, Son of a Birch, Mama Birch and Poppa Birch, which are sold at local farmers markets and shipped to Vancouver restaurants.
Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver executive chef Ned Bell said Fowler’s birch syrup was the best he had ever tasted.
He found the product online and was impressed by its depth of flavour and authenticity compared with other products which contain added sugar.
Bell said he held Fowler in high regard for his dedication and enthusiasm for his product.
“He does it the right way because that’s the only way that he can do it, he doesn’t take short-cuts and I absolutely cherish artisans like that,” he said.
“They make my life easy and exciting when I know that he puts as much love into his birch syrup as I put into roasting a piece of fish or a scallop.
“When I use his product I use it with intense care and attention and respect and I don’t abuse it because I love it.”
Bell said his restaurant uses the syrup primarily during fall and winter with caramelized roasted meats and fish.
He describes the flavour as being a cross between molasses and maple syrup.
“Most consumers, a lot of them have birch syrup but they don’t really understand the flavour and so when they taste it they’re just like ‘oh my God this is like molasses meets maple’ and so they just love that unique combination on their palate,” he said.