Family-run Manitoba Birch Syrup Business is Booming
Rocky Lake Birchworks, located in The Pas, Manitoba, has been in business only about a decade, and they’re producing the sweetest new Manitoba product—birch syrup.
When former RCMP officer Al McLauchlan started the company with his wife, Johanna, the couple thought of it as a ramping-down, retirement project.
“It was just going to be something to keep us busy,” Al says. “But it’s really taken off.”
Originally from southern Ontario, McLauchlan had tapped maple trees with his grandfather when he was growing up, and now the McLauchlan’s sons, Andy and Peter, are also involved in the business. While birch syrup is not yet as established a product as maple syrup, McLauchlan says the company has been selling out year after year.
“There are only ten producers across Canada, and maybe 25 in North America, so it’s a very limited market,” he says. “But birch syrup has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years.”
Rocky Lake Birchworks produces two versions of the syrup — a 100 per cent pure birch syrup and a lighter breakfast-syrup style. Harvested over just a 10- to 21-day period starting at the beginning of April, it takes an average of 125 gallons of sap to produce a gallon of birch syrup, compared to a 40-to-one ratio for maple syrup.
Nothing is added to the syrup for the 100 per cent pure product, while the lighter breakfast syrup is further sweetened by adding natural fructose during the boiling stage before bottling.
“The breakfast syrup has a taste that is maybe more familiar to people who have had other tree syrups, but it still has that unique colour and birch taste,” McLauchlan says.
With a darker brown colour than maple syrup, birch syrup has a unique flavour that you just have to try to experience for yourself.
“It has a taste that is not similar at all to maple,” McLauchlan says. “It has more of a molasses-like taste that can be used in a variety of ways — as a glaze in general cooking or barbecuing, and in traditional ways on pancakes and French toast. But if you’re really looking for something to add a bit of that ‘whomp’ of flavour, then it’s definitely birch syrup that works.”
And they’ve been leveraging that hit of flavour in partnerships with other Manitoba entrepreneurs in the food industry. McLauchlan says Chocolatier Constance Popp, located on Provencher Boulevard in St. Boniface, has been using the birch syrup in one of its chocolate bars.
“It’s unique, and people are interested in the unique,” says McLauchlan. “The sap is collected from wild birch trees growing naturally in the boreal forest in northern Manitoba. We’re very proud Manitoba is a leader in making birch syrup.”
Supportive Business Community
The McLauchlans have grown Rocky Lake’s success through both online presence and word of mouth.
“The Food Development Centre in Portage la Prairie helped us out a lot,” he says. “They were great helping to get us into some of the trade shows.”
In addition to the Food Development Centre, McLauchlan says not being afraid of looking for outside advice and knowing when to bring in professionals has benefitted Rocky Lake.
“We knew it was going to be hard work, and we weren’t afraid of that,” he says. “We were surprised by the number of people who are interested in helping small entrepreneurs get their product off the ground. Manitoba Agriculture, the provincial government, the Manitoba Food Processors Association and the Food Development Centre were absolutely wonderful.
“The other thing that was really neat was that other entrepreneurs in the province, who have gone through a lot of what we’ve now gone through, were able to give us little hints over social media. We made friendships and took advice from mentors, and we’ve become mentors to others. It’s a small community, but people are not afraid to help one another out.”
It was the first time the McLauchlans marketed any kind of food product, and they recommend that anyone jumping into the business should turn to the pros.
“Every day was a new day for us,” McLauchlan says. “If you’re going to do something like this, go big or go home. Do it right.”
Although they’re pros in birch syrup, Rocky Lake looked to marketing professionals and a graphic designer to help them out with those details.
“Use the professionals we have in Manitoba to help you out,” McLauchlan says. “It’s the first time we’ve marketed a product, so every day was a new day. The designer and his company (Melnyk Design Group) really helped us out. People have come to us and have said they love our labels. I didn’t design it, because that’s not what I’m good at. As the design developed, it really made sense and looked great.”
Knowing Your Market Potential
“People aren’t afraid to pay money for a product that is high-quality and from Manitoba, and they know they’re supporting the Manitoba economy.”
McLauchlan also hopes to launch online sales of Rocky Lake products soon.
“Right now, we have retailers from Boissevain right up to Churchill and a lot of places in between. And we’re in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario,” he says. “Canada-wide distribution is something we’d be interested in.”
Rocky Lake also markets an Irish breakfast tea made with black tea and Chaga, a type of mushroom that grows on some birch trees. Chaga, which grows around the world in areas with cooler climates, has been used medicinally for centuries and is believed to help with certain skin ailments.
The growing company also has a number of other products currently in the research stage, but McLauchlan didn’t want to give too much away just yet.
“We’re very interested in everything from the boreal forest,” McLauchlan says. “There are a number of products we’d like to expand our line with, food products and a couple little surprises.”
MTS is proud to have Rocky Lake Birchworks as a telephone client. For more information or to find out your nearest retailer of Rocky Lake Birchworks products, check out rockylakebirch.com.