When Martin Malenfant wandered through his grandparents' maple grove as a child, he knew he loved those trees and the nectar flowing deep inside them. But he didn't imagine that, one day, he'd be selling a very different syrup from the maple product for which Quebec is famous.
Malenfant has been in business making the classic maple syrup for 13 years. But recently, he's been turning heads by tapping the yellow birch trees on his land, making specialized birch syrup. It's still a very small industry in Canada, with only a handful of producers in British Columbia, the Yukon and Quebec. "It's very different," Malenfant says. "It's not the kind of thing you'd put on your pancakes in the morning." Birch syrup is known for its very strong taste, less sweet than maple syrup with hints of caramel and even balsamic vinegar. It packs a lot of punch in dishes both savoury and sweet, and very little of the syrup is needed to bring out the flavour.
Because the composition of sugars in birch syrup is much different than in maple syrup, the birch sap is boiled over less heat—about 30 per cent less—and it takes much longer to condense. Maple syrup, by contrast, can be boiled for a much shorter time at high temperatures, and less liquid needs to be boiled away to produce the syrup.
Malenfant believes he's found a promising niche in the food industry. "In high-end grocery stores and restaurants, there's a trend toward new products, toward the unfamiliar," he says. Birch syrup accounts for about only 5 per cent of sales, and Malenfant doesn't expect to make much money for the first few years. Eventually, however, he expects the birch syrup will make up about 25 per cent of revenue.
Malenfant's birch syrup is already gaining acclaim. In June, it was one of 10 winners of the Trends & Innovations Awards at the SIAL Canada international food trade show in Toronto.
Litres of sap needed to make one litre of birch syrup: 130 Litres of sap needed to make one litre of maple syrup: 35 Hectares of forest owned by Érablière Escuminac: 500 Number of trees that Escuminac taps for its maple/birch syrups: 115,000 Year that Malenfant founded the company and began producing maple syrup: 1998 Year Malenfant began selling birch syrup: 2010
1. You have to really want it. "As an entreprenneur, you must believe in what you're doing. You have to be absolutely convinced it's the right decision for you, because it requires a lot of effort," Malenfant says. "You won't succeed in the first year."
2. Giving customers something unfamiliar and new can set you apart, but be realistic about how long it will take. "Maple syrup is easy, because it's well known, " Malenfant says. "But with a new product, it takes much more time and effort to bring it to market. It can take five years before you start to see returns."
3. If you want to go organic, forget about doing it on the cheap. "When you make your products sustainable, it doesn't allow you to compete on price," Malenfant says. "But it's a good marketing tool—if consumers care about the environment, they'll seek out organic products."