“When Latvians drink birch sap, it’s a sign of spring coming,” says Ervins Labanovskis. It’s been consumed here for centuries; folk songs reference the birch tree’s alleged magical and medicinal powers, and many Latvians believe drinking the sap detoxifies the body.
Ervins runs an organic birch-sap business from his home — a timber cottage in Smiltene, northern Latvia, where he spent holidays as a child. He uses sap to make sparkling drinks via a method that dates back to his parents, who’d ferment it in champagne bottles and infuse it with peppermint. As an adult, Ervins recreated the drink in his own kitchen, before teaming up with his sister, Nora, to turn their parents’ idea into a business called BIRZĪ, adding a small factory and tasting room to their 80-acre, birch-dotted plot at Smiltene.
The harvesting window is incredibly slim: Ervins and his seasonal team of 15 have just three weeks to collect as much sap as possible by making a non-damaging hole in the birch trunk, inserting a tap and allowing the sap to trickle out, drop by drop. This has historically taken place in April, known as ‘sulu mēnesis’ (sap month) in the Latvian calendar, but warmer winters in recent years have meant the birches have been ready for tapping in March.
“For birch trees to get a good sap season, they need a freezing winter, so climate change is a big concern,” says Ervins. The trees become dormant in subzero temperatures, when the sugar used in sap production is redirected to the roots. It then moves back up the tree, ready for spring.
In 2022, 80,000 litres of sap were collected at BIRZĪ — a good year for a small outfit. It’s bottled, with a third sold to be drunk fresh and another third boiled to make syrup, which has a smoky tang that pairs well with cheese and grilled meats. The remainder undergoes double fermentation, emerging six months later as a non-alcoholic sparkling drink. To this, Ervins adds flavours such as peppermint, lemon, blackcurrant bud and stevia (a natural sugar substitute that provides a slightly sweeter option). Outside of the season, he pivots to making maple and other syrups from local herbs, flowers and fruits, including apples.
While Nora manages the finances from her home in Riga, Ervins lives here year-round with his wife Livija — who helps with everything from quality control to paperwork — and their three children. The family regularly plant new birch, maple and walnut trees, and in future hope to have more than 100 varieties. The result: Ervins’ childhood holiday spot is not just his home, but also the world’s very first ‘sap tree park’.
Three more Latvian favourites
Widely grown throughout the country, hemp is typically made into a spread similar to peanut butter, but with more of a botanical flavour. It can also be ground with garlic, chilli or sun-dried tomatoes to make a pesto.
2. Sea buckthorn
This frost-resistant and vitamin-rich orange berry has a distinct sharpness. It’s used in everything from jams, juices and teas to ice cream, marmalades and marshmallows.
This expensive eel-like fish is a jewel in the crown of Latvian food culture, served smoked, grilled, jellied or in soups. It’s so popular there’s even an annual lamprey festival.