Northern Manitoba to New York City: Birch syrup producers tap into economic opportunities in boreal forest

Alan and Johanna McLauchlan's family-run business, Rocky Lake Birchworks, has seen its birch syrup travel from the boreal forest of northern Manitoba to New York City.

Alan and Johanna McLauchlan's Rocky Lake Birchworks 1 of just 2 birch syrup producers in Manitoba

Alan and Johanna McLauchlan started Rocky Lake Birchworks in 2007. Now, their signature birch syrup has made it to tables around the world. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

While many see the main economic potential in Manitoba's vast boreal forest in the logging industry, Alan and Johanna McLauchlan have literally carved out a different niche, with a business that's seen their products go from the serene quiet of the northern Manitoba forest to the busy streets of New York.

Their family-run business, Rocky Lake Birchworks, is one of just two birch syrup producers in Manitoba, and among only a handful in Western Canada.
The McLauchlan's started producing birch syrup about ten years ago. They now tap more than 1,500 birch trees. 0:36

"I had tapped sugar maple trees with my grandfather when I was a child," said Alan, who started the operation with his wife after they both retired. They now run Rocky Lake Birchworks with their sons.

"I did a little research and we came across birch. We have lots of birch up north in the boreal forest."

The couple started producing birch syrup at their production facility near Wanless, Man., 40 kilometres north of The Pas and 560 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, about 10 years ago. They now tap more than 1,500 birch trees in a vast operation on the shores of Rocky Lake.

The only way to access their facility during the winter is to take a 25-minute snowmobile ride across the frozen lake. There is no cell service, no internet access — just the trees and forest. 

"There's nothing better than the silence of the bush," said Alan. "We're off grid here. The world outside could fall apart and we wouldn't know about it." 
The only way to access the McLauchlans' facility during the winter is to take a 25-minute snowmobile ride across the frozen lake. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Maple to Birch  

The McLauchlans started off by tapping 15 trees in their backyard. That was a failure, though. The next year, they tried again with 35 trees and over the next few years increased to 320 birch trees. They're now up to 1,500. Alan estimates there are more than 3,000 trees in the area they could tap. 

With the snow starting to melt and temperatures starting to warm, preparations are already underway for the upcoming season. 

"We're pretty excited," said Johanna. The couple has been busy cleaning out tanks, bringing in fuel and checking the maze of blue plastic piping that crosses the area, carrying sap from the trees into the production facility. 

But while syrup may be the couple's signature product, wild rice, salves and tea made from chaga mushrooms round out the current product line.

They hope to produce 1,500 bottles of syrup this year. It takes between 125 to 135 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

Rocky Lake Birchworks' Alan McLauchlan taps sap from birch trees along Rocky Lake, near The Pas, Man. The sap is fed through pipes to the McLauchlans' remote production facility. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

"Once we collect the sap, it's brought into the evaporator and we start cooking it off, and once we get the sugar from one per cent up to 32 per cent, we draw it off and we start using the finishing pan to make birch syrup," said Johanna, explaining the process from tree to bottle.

'Unique' taste

"It's unique," said Alan in describing the taste, warning that it does not have the flavour of the maple syrup everyone knows. "It's a totally different taste. Our pure syrup is a much darker syrup." 

That taste has now made its way from northern Manitoba virtually around the globe.

"I think we've gone to every continent," said Alan, whether through retailers or people bringing his products to family and friends in other countries. "People, I think, are excited about bringing a local Manitoba product to their friends."

But Alan said one of his most surprising orders recently came from New York City.
The couple produces about 1,500 bottles of syrup every year. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

"We have a really high-end restaurant in New York that's using our syrup, which we're very excited about," said Alan, who phoned down to the restaurant just to be sure it was a real order the first time.

"We kind of went, 'Obviously you like the product,'" said Alan.

"I mean, if you can make it there, you can make it pretty well anywhere," he added. "I think we've hit one of our pinnacles that we've wanted to hit." 

Expanding use of the forest 

As for what's next, Alan and Johanna have different ideas.

Johanna would like to see their current product line expand into Europe and Asia, but Alan would like to branch into different products.

"There's lots of other products in the boreal forest that we haven't touched yet.… We need to start exploring some of those and increasing our product line that way," he said, pointing to birch sap wine as one possibility.

The only way to access their facility during the winter is to take a 25 minute snowmobile ride across the frozen lake. There is no cell service, no internet access, just the trees and forest. 1:06

"There's lots of good things in the forest that we can use rather than going in and cutting it all down — not against logging at all — but I mean, there are other products there."

Regardless, they're all ready for this year's season. 

"We love taking the gamble," said Alan. "We have money invested in this production year already. Every year is a gamble." 

Tapping into birch syrup along Manitoba's vast boreal forest 2:43

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said it takes between 125 to 135 gallons of sap to make one litre of syrup. In fact, it takes takes between 125 to 135 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
    Apr 06, 2018 10:48 AM CT

About the Author

Riley Laychuk

CBC Manitoba reporter

Riley Laychuk is CBC's reporter based in Brandon, covering rural Manitoba. Share your story ideas, tips and feedback: riley.laychuk@cbc.ca.