Adirondack researcher advocates for another sweet tree
By Mike Lynch
A Lake Placid scientist sees an untapped potential in a tree species that has traditionally been considered a nuisance by many foresters and maple syrup producers.
Adam Wild, director of Cornell University’s Uihlein Maple Research Forest, has been studying beech trees for the past several years and says advances in modern technology are now making it possible to get sap from the species.
“You can’t just go and drill a hole, put in a spout, and hang a bucket,” said Wild, who details his findings in a report funded by the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program.
You can, however, get sap from a beech tree by using a tap attached to tubing with a vacuum system, standard equipment for many maple syrup producers, Wild said.
The sap can then be boiled down to create syrup.
However, there are some differences between tree saps.
Beech season starts in April and continues into May, while the maple season generally starts in March and finishes in April.
Plus, beech sap has a sugar content between .5% and 1% compared to maple’s 2%.
The sugar content impacts the boiling process used to make syrup. Beech sap takes roughly 120 to 140 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, whereas it takes about 40 gallons of maple sap to make a gallon.
But, once again, Wild said technology advances come into play to process more efficiently and possible. He said reverse osmosis systems, which filter sugar from water and are becoming more common among syrup producers, can remove about 50% to 80% of the water in the sap.
“From an economic standpoint, it’s another thing that 100 years ago, it wouldn’t have been worthwhile to do,” Wild said.
Once the syrup is created, there are a number of retail options for it. Wild compared the beech syrup to the equivalent product made from birch trees.
“With the birch, a little bit goes a long ways,” Wild said. “And so I see that with the beech as well, that it is a novelty and so you’re gonna get a lot more value for that and so on from a retail standpoint.”
One option is to blend the beech product with maple syrup. Beech is closer to maple syrup than birch, which is tart.
“The beech flavor is, I would say more complex than maple syrup, but it is definitely closer to maple syrup than the birch syrup is,” Wild said. “So it does have a sweet taste, and I like to say that the beech syrup has notes of raisins, dried plums, dried pears.”
It’s sweet enough to put on pancakes, but it could be used as a salad dressing or put on roasted vegetables or to marinade meats.
Wild said he knows of only one operation that makes beech syrup and that’s Forest Farmers in Lyon Mountain, an operation run by Michael Farrell, who held Wild’s position before starting that business. Wild said Farrell did the preliminary research on beech products.
Another option for the sap is to create a drink out of it, which people currently do with maple sap.
“I could see that as maybe a potentially even more viable option is to actually sterilize it, and bottle it or pasteurize it, bottle and sell it as a beech sap as a kind of functional beverage,” he said.
A key impetus for the study was to provide value for beech trees, which are often considered nuisances by commercial operations. The wood isn’t particularly valuable in the timber products industry. In addition, beech trees often send out multitudes of root sprouts that outcompete other trees that have greater economic value, such as maples.
As a result, many landowners removed beech in their forests.
But Wild said his organization wants to encourage landowners to use trees other than just maple, which itself is potentially vulnerable to invasive species.
As for the diseases ailing beech trees, Wild said those are valid concerns, particularly beech leaf disease. The ailment has been known to kill young trees in a few years and spread quickly. Scientists discovered the disease in New York in 2017 and found it in the Adirondacks for the first time last summer in the southwestern part of the park. Researchers are still trying to figure out the vector for it.
As for beech bark disease, he said it’s been around for decades and there are still enough trees to tap. The disease, caused by a fungus, mainly kills mature trees and some of those have shown a natural resistance to the ailment.
Wild sees tapping beech trees as a potential way for maple syrup producers to diversify their products.
“It’s kind of exciting to be able to work on a crop that doesn’t have any research (done on it),” Wild said. “You know, it’s fun and exciting to work with maple, but that’s something that’s been done for centuries.”
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