About eight miles outside of Talkeetna nestled in a grove of birch trees resides an unassuming home that happens to be the headquarters for the largest manufacturer of birch syrup in the world.
The home belongs to Michael East and his wife Dulce Ben-East; they operate more processing birch syrup taps than anyone else through their company, Kahiltna Birchworks. The company draws its name from an Athabascan word meaning “from the source,” which for the Easts has more than one meaning.
“Both our lifestyle and our business depend greatly on nature,” Ben-East wrote in a blog she keeps about her experiences.
The Easts' story began in 1989, nearly 20 years after hearing an Alaskan sourdough story about making syrup from birch trees much the same way maple syrup is made. The process was slow, beginning with boiling down a pan of sap to syrup in an oven. The result looked more like Alaskan crude oil and probably tasted similar.
The husband-and-wife team, along with their partner Sally Freund, began their business in 1990 at their Quiet Lake homestead, about 35 miles off the Alaska road system.
The trio quietly began producing their product with the help of a team of “sap suckers,” using adapted innovative tapping technology. In that first year Kahiltna Birchworks tapped 200 trees, and East says the company saw an immediate demand for more.
While the process has been refined, East says the work is still hard and many difficulties in creating the syrup are inherent to the process.
Even getting the sap is a labor-intensive rush. The average sap run begins in April and typically only lasts about 19 to 20 days; in the Interior, it can be as short as 10 days. Sap sucking crews of 10 to 13 work each day for about 10 to 12 hours.
Birch sap's low sugar content means it takes at least 100 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, versus 40 gallons of maple sap to make a gallon of maple syrup. On top of those difficulties East says the process is fairly new, meaning new complications and innovations are still being discovered.
Starting with an original strong, dark birch syrup in 1990, Kahiltna has diversified into a lighter golden “first run” grade for pouring on pancakes, cereals and desserts, plus a deep “late run” purchased by breweries, creameries and chefs.
Today, with more than 16,000 processing taps across Alaska, the East family manufactures and distributes 1,500 gallons a year of birch syrup, as well as a number of birch syrup candies and other confections. The company's website offers customers around the globe the opportunity to order its wares.
The Easts' syrup does a brisk business in Italy -- where consumers drink it straight from the bottle, for what he believes are its health benefits.
“Unlike maple syrup, which is mainly sucrose, birch syrup contains fructose, sucrose and other sugars, making it more easily digestible for humans,” East said. “It also contains a number of antioxidants.”
If you buy birch syrup in Alaska, chances are the Easts produced it. East says there are East Coast manufacturers of the syrup, but the world's other largest producers are also in Alaska: a company in Fairbanks is processing about 700 taps, while another in Homer has less than that.
At the onset, the East family was just hoping to start a business. After using marketing, advertising and product sampling to educate retail and wholesale customers, though, the Easts effectively helped create and refine an industry.
“It’s the hardest work I have ever done, but I’ll never forget it,” East said.
Like any industry, though, it comes with its own set of logistical hurdles to overcome. Despite attempts by the Easts to formalize guidelines for its content, birch syrup is largely unregulated -- allowing some manufacturers to dilute their product with additives and preservatives, while the Easts try to keep the field pure.