Fancy an energy drink? I'd prefer a birch
For just two to three weeks of the year, forests across the northern hemisphere fill with a silent burst of activity as hundreds of litres of sap rise daily up through each mature birch tree in preparation for the spring.
Now companies are tapping into this, quite literally, to produce a drink hailed as the next so-called superfood, or “superdrink” – birch water.
Tapping the sap
There’s nothing new about birch water. A traditional drink and medicinal ingredient in parts of Canada, China and Eastern Europe among others, birch water is birch sap that has been collected from birch trees as winter comes to an end.
To date, birch water production has been somewhat of a cottage industry, with producers harvesting sap for personal consumption or to sell to a domestic market. Now the growing industry is seeing brands emerge selling Eastern European and Scandinavian birch water to US and UK markets.
“Sourcing birch water is difficult,” says Clara Vaisse, co-founder of UK birch water brand Sibberi. “There is no existing birch water industry per se, and thus no big supplier with existing procedures or an English-speaking commercial team. Birch water supply therefore has to come from multiple, local, small-scale harvests.”
Unlike poorly-paid coconut farmers – harvesters of coconut water, the billion-dollar predecessor to birch water – the farmers Sibberi sources from are paid well for two reasons, says Vaisse: firstly, the trees occur within other forest types, such as oak and pine, so aren’t necessarily easily accessed; secondly, the harvest only lasts once a year for a fortnight. This makes mechanising the collection process both impractical and unprofitable, so manual harvesting is paid at a premium.
Latvian birch water farmer Ervins Labanovskis, 35, is positive about the product’s prospects: “We have been harvesting birch sap in my family for as long as I can remember, but only during [the] last four years has it also become my business … Currently I would say it creates 50% of my income. But I am looking at this industry as a growing one and there is a high possibility that in a year from now it will be my primary or even only occupation.”