Nfld. & Labrador

'On the cutting edge': Health drink made from birch sap brings new life to Benton forest

A partnership between Rodrigues Winery and a natural health company stands to bring two dozen jobs to the province and launch into European market.

The company plans to tap up to 15,000 trees this spring

Companies harvesting birch sap say thinking outside the box brings news value to the forest resource. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

A partnership between Rodrigues Winery and a natural health company stands to bring two dozen jobs to the province and launch a Newfoundland-made product into European markets.

The winery and distillery will partner with Semintha Nutraceuticals to use birch sap from Home Pond, near Benton, to produce a health drink for global distribution.

The end product will be a cranberry or blueberry drink using the sap's natural sweetness.

"We've been trying to develop this business in Newfoundland for two or three years," said Semintha chairman Nicholas Katsepontes. "Finally, the market demand is increased to the extent we seem to have a fair bit of viability here and are getting orders."

Hilary Rodrigues, owner of the winery, said they will ship 300,000 litres in North America in April, with plans to expand to Europe for another million litres by the following spring.

"What we do right now [making wine and spirits] will be dwarfed," he said, noting the contracts are already in place. "This is a slam dunk."

The Markland winery will bottle the products, creatintg up to 24 jobs there and in Gander.

Concerns about nearby cutting

While Semintha is currently leasing 300 acres of birch, Katsepontes expects to the demand to outgrow supply within two years, at which point the company will need an additional 300 acres.

Across the pond from their taps, a separate company is proposing a commercial cutting venture and the provincial government has confirmed it is open to exploring that option.

There's  gotta  be a happy medium here where both companies can find a way to thrive.- Nicholas Katsepontes

Katsepontes and local cabin owners are concerned about how far the cutting will go.

"We are worried that such plans to start cutting lumber could spread and it is a very unique birch reserve Newfoundland has at Home Pond," he said. "There's gotta be a happy medium here where both companies can find a way to thrive."

'Thinking out of the box'

The value of a fallen birch tree is roughly equal to a year's worth of sap from the same tree, Katsepontes said, but the tree can produce sap for decades.

"We see the forest as having far more value producing birch sap which can be turned into a variety of birch products, rather than cutting down that tree today."

Semintha began tapping trees at Home Pond in 2012, when it began a 15-year lease with the government. Before now, the sap was stored or used in soaps and skin creams. The hope is to tap between 12,000 and 15,000 trees in 2017.

"We're looking at a traditional industry and actually coming up with something new out of it," Katsepontes said. "By looking at some of these natural resources and thinking out of the box a bit … There's some fairly remarkable potential there. We like to think we are on the cutting edge of that potential."

About the Author

Ryan Cooke

Ryan Cooke works for CBC out of its bureau in St. John's.