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Research highlights untapped market of beech trees

 Beech trees tapped at the Uihlein Maple Research Forest in Lake Placid for research in 2022.
Adam D. Wild
Beech trees tapped at the Uihlein Maple Research Forest in Lake Placid for research in 2022.

It may be the height of maple syrup season in the Northeast, but one researcher in northern New York has turned his focus to another type of sap. Adam Wild, the director of the Uihlein Maple Research Forest in Lake Placid, is out with a report on the economic potential of American Beech trees. The research is supported by the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program.

WAMC's Jim Levulis spoke with Wild about his findings.

Wild: I have an interest in looking at forests in general. And you know, working with maple, I love maple and working with that. But it's always great to be able to expand beyond the maple and look at how can we utilize our forests for more products. So you know, what are other trees and resources that we can do here? So we also tap birch trees at Uihlein forest here on my predecessor had started doing that and looking at Birch trees and the production from that that's very popular in Alaska and even parts of Scandinavia will tap bursaries for getting the sap and drinking in the spring. So we're doing that here for research and commercial production. So looking at what are the other species that we can be tapping within our forest to get more for that? So thinking more about, you know, the kind of the agroforestry? The farming of our forests, seeds that get more than just that one individual crop. How can we utilize these forests for more than just timber? And so if we look in a forest throughout kind of the Northeast, we see a lot of beech trees throughout our forests.

Levulis: When it comes to the source for this potential market of beech syrup, how does the population of the American beech in the Northeast compare to maples that are used for maple syrup production?

Wild: They're fairly similar. The range for American beech and sugar maple overlap quite well and grow in usually the same type of forest. So there is a quite a broad range of beech trees growing throughout the northeastern United States, southeastern Canada, and reaching down kind of through the Appalachian Mountain range. Beech trees have been experienced a little bit of some troubles that there is a disease called beech bark disease that attacks the beech trees. And so when you walk through a forest oftentimes now and look at a beech tree, and a beech tree usually has this really nice smooth gray bark and will become these very large trees, but with the beech bark disease it causes these little cankers that form on the tree that kind of restrict some of the sap flow. And over time, eventually, the trees oftentimes will die off, but their roots stay alive. And they send up all kinds of roots and stump sprouts, and so the trees continue to live. So there's still lots of beech throughout our forest, we just don't have as many large healthy trees, but they'll still get the decent size. So they are all throughout our forest, but there's fairly low kind of economic value. So it's not a tree that usually harvested for timber. It is used for harvesting for like pulpwood for making paper. And it's a great firewood tree. But when it comes to like timber sampling compared to like maple, there's really very low value. So oftentimes, foresters don't really favor beech. And so that was kind of another thing of looking at beech trees is how can we bring kind of some value to those trees for landowners?

Beech syrup samples produced for the NNYADP-funded research evaluating the economic feasibility of producing syrup from American beech trees; on the left, syrup made using reverse osmosis before boiling; right, syrup boiled down directly from sap.
Adam D. Wild
Beech syrup samples produced for the NNYADP-funded research evaluating the economic feasibility of producing syrup from American beech trees; on the left, syrup made using reverse osmosis before boiling; right, syrup boiled down directly from sap.

Levulis: You note in your report with some estimates here that based on current sales of $4.50 per ounce of beech syrup a gallon would price out at $576. Now pun absolutely intended here, that seems like a huge untapped market?

Wild: Yeah, there certainly is. The value of beech would have to be more than it is for maple. And obviously maple syrup is not the cheapest product and there is a lot of labor and inputs into making maple. When we look at tapping beech trees, I was able to find in the research that I did that the amount of sap that you can get from a larger beech tree is fairly comparable to what you would get from a maple, maybe a little bit less, but the sugar within the sap is much lower. And so usually a maple tree takes about 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. But in a beech tree, it’s going to be three times that, if not more. So, you know we're looking at 120-140 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup, so it takes a lot of sap just to make a little bit of syrup. And so because of that, the value is going to be much higher. And so there's a lot of beech trees throughout the area. And the tree that can obviously be tapped as we found in our research and does create kind of a new potential market that's not being tapped into.

Levulis: And in terms of the process for tapping beech trees and processing that sap into beech syrup, is it essentially the same as with maple?

Wild: Yeah, essentially it is very similar. One really big important thing to take note is that we found that if you're doing especially in a backyard, that, you know, traditionally of tapping maple trees, where you drill a hole and put a spout in and hang a bucket, and you know, you can collect that sap. Unfortunately, that doesn't work for beech trees. And that's what has allowed some of these new tree species to be tapped like a beech tree, and that it hasn't been done historically. We found is that you actually have to put the beech trees onto a tubing system and have vacuum, which is how maple syrup production is done commercially now in most cases anyways. Where it's all on a tubing system, we put vacuum that allows us to get more sap from the trees, but with maple without vacuum, you can still get sap. But a beech tree, if you just tap and put a bucket, you're not going to get any sap, you do need to have vacuum. So that's probably the biggest difference is that you need to put that vacuum on in order to get the sap, but beyond that, the process of boiling it down is all similar to the maple. And so that's another great thing. And a reason for looking at tapping these other species such as the beech trees is being able to utilize equipment on a producer standpoint, for more than just one single product. If we can use some of the same equipment to make different products, then that's going to bring more value to that small business owner. And so with that, you know, we are using reverse osmosis to filter out a lot of the water, I highly recommend, because the sugar is so low in beach sap that it is run through a reverse osmosis system first, which has filters and can filter out 90% of the water before you actually boil it. And then it is boiled down much like maple.

Levulis: And looking at the conditions needed then for what I guess you would call it prime beech sap production is that sort of the same as it might be for maple, typically warm days cold nights? And typically this time of year where it's winter transitioning into spring?

Wild: It's a little different there as well. Instead of the warm days and cold nights that we need for maple, for beach that weather is still good. But the cold nights are less important. Where maple we need to have those cold nights, you can go a day or two without it freezing but then the sap flow will kind of stop in maples and you need it to freeze again to kind of recharge the trees. In the beech, it's not about the cold nights, it's more with a vacuum that we're pulling groundwater actually up through the roots. So we need the ground to be thought out a lot more. So the early part of the maple season, beech isn't going to flow as well. You need to wait a little bit more for the snow to melt more, have a lot of ground moisture amd the ground thawed out. So it kind of flows better during the second half of the maple season. When we're putting the vacuum on and we're actually pulling groundwater through the tree roots and picking up stored sugars. Beech, much like maples, are a type of tree that store a lot of extra sugar as well. And so that's when we're collecting, it can actually go a little bit longer than the maple season though. Soon as the buds start to swell and a maple tree that goes off flavors into maple syrup. And that's kind of when the season ends. Where beech trees can go a little bit longer than that in the buds open later on beech trees and they do me both that allows you to extend for a couple weeks past the maple season.

Levulis: Maybe the most important question as it pertains to this market. What does beech syrup taste like?

Wild: That is the important question. It's somewhat similar to maple. It definitely has its own unique flavor to it. For folks who have maybe had birch syrup before, birch syrup is oftentimes very different from maple but there's a lot of variations in birch syrup. But birch is very different where I find that beech is similar to maple but it has some kind of unique characteristics and its flavor profile and the best way I can describe them is that it's got kind of some, like flavors of raisins or dried plums or like a dried pear. So it's kind of its own unique flavor to it. But it's very great and can be used in many of the same ways that maple syrup can be used, or one option is to even blend it with maple syrup. So because you get less syrup per tree than you would with maple with a lower sugar, one option is to blend the two together so that that you can kind of create more of a product and have a lot more product to be able to sell or use.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org