THE PAS -- If you're going to go head-to-head with a Canadian icon, you better be confident.
That's no problem for Al and Johanna McLauchlan, the entrepreneurial couple behind western Canada's largest producer of a mouth-watering maple syrup alternative.
"The first thing we tell people is to clear their minds of the taste of maple, because birch syrup tastes nothing like maple syrup," said Al, co-owner of Rocky Lake Birchworks.
Indeed birch syrup offers a sweet caramel-like, citrusy taste all its own. And thanks to the McLauchlans, it's a flavour that is reaching a growing number of pallets.
It all started more than a decade ago when the McLauchlans, in search of a new hobby, saw untapped potential -- literally -- in the thousands of birch trees in The Pas region.
"I had tapped maples down east as a child, but there are no sugar maples here," said Al, as gentlemanly as he is brawny. "I was looking at Manitoba maples, but there were none close to our home. However, we had lots of birch, and after a little research, we started tapping."
Things didn't go so well that first year. The McLauchlans tapped sap from 15 trees and, using a turkey cooker as a boiler to remove the water, burned the syrup.
The next year was better as 50 trees yielded a small but edible return as the McLauchlans boiled off the syrup on a wood cook stove like Al's grandfather used to have.
Never ones to shy away from exciting risks, the McLauchlans decided to go big or go home. They found a site north of The Pas, tapped 350 trees and for the first time produced syrup on a sizable scale.
Ten years later, with about $250,000 invested in equipment, they now tap more than 1,000 trees a year, extracting sap with a vacuum system and isolating syrup with a large evaporator.
With help from sons Peter and Andy, along with friends and neighbours curious to see the inner workings of this exceptional enterprise, the McLauchlans sometimes put in 20-hour days couples half their age wouldn't attempt.
It's not that Al needs more on his plate. A retired Mountie and college instructor, he also happens to be mayor of The Pas.
If politics is about amassing widespread support, then the syrup business is about pleasing a narrow market. Yet for a supposedly niche gourmet product, birch syrup has surprisingly broad appeal.
While most Rocky Lake Birchworks customers are Manitobans, the company has shipped to such far-flung places as Australia, China, Afghanistan, England and Spain.
So how does one enjoy birch syrup? With just about anything, from pancakes and waffles to yogurt and ice cream.
Some customers use the dark sauce to sweeten their tea; others as a natural medicine for its apparent detoxifying benefits.
Food and beverage retailers are even discovering northern Manitoba birch syrup is the perfect addition to their products. Among them: a birch bark bar, a martini and a cocktail.
The notion birch syrup is not only edible, but delicious, is news to many, but the tree actually has a long history as one of nature's great philanthropists.
"The birch tree is called the 'mother of the forest' by some early tribal peoples," Al said. "It gives us a number of products, including birch sap, which has been boiled down into syrup ever since man entered the boreal forest."
That tradition will continue for years to come if the McLauchlans have their way. They have some 3,000 trees on their property outside The Pas and eventually want to tap all of them.
"We are getting new retailers every month, chefs are discovering birch syrup and the demand is growing," Al said. "There are 10 producers in Canada. We are the largest in western Canada and we would love to be the largest in the country in a few years."
Adds the entrepreneur: "We enjoy sharing the bounties of northern Manitoba with the world."
Jonathon Naylor is editor of the Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.