Founded in 2016, the birch water startup secured €24,000 on Kickstarter in May last year and rolled out its range of birch drinks in Estonia shortly after. ÖselBirch has six organic variants, including fermented 'sour', 'rhubarb' and 'mojito' birch water and some fresh birch varieties. Now available in more than 100 stores nationwide, it wants to upscale production and start exporting to other European countries next year.
Birch sap is harvested just as the snow begins to melt, usually around March or April in Estonia, and is tapped directly from the tree. Hailed for its natural levels of electrolytes and antioxidants, as well as trace vitamins and minerals, it is valued for its hydration, anti-inflammatory and detoxifying properties.
According to a Global Alternative Waters report, plant-based waters like coconut, maple, cactus and birch are set to pull in €4.6bn by 2020, driven by consumer demand for healthy hydration options.
Birch sap needs 'a lot of explanation'
Anne-Liis Theisen, marketing manager and co-founder of ÖselBirch, said the plan to export the beverages elsewhere in Europe will start with Scandinavia.
“Birch sap is a beverage that needs a lot of explanation. If you go to some countries, they don't even know that you can tap water out of a birch tree. Because it's a product that needs an explanation, we're looking to expand first of all into Scandinavian countries because it's tradition and they're aware of the beverage,” Theisen told NutraIngredients.
“For next year, we're already talking with Finland and we're going to try approaching Sweden as well. But in the three-year plan we're going to target Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark,” she said.
Germany and the UK will also be potential export markets, given Theisen and her sister/co-founder are based in these countries, although expansion will prove more difficult here and require consumer education.
“In the UK, we're also late to market with birch there as there's already a big player in the market. But, to my knowledge there's nobody yet with fermented birch sap.”
Fermented birch? Even in Estonia it's kind of new...
ÖselBirch's fermented birch drink 'Sour Power' is inspired by a traditional recipe from Theisen's grandmother who came from the Saaremaa island of Estonia. Working with a fermentation laboratory, ÖselBirch ferments batches of tapped, fresh birch sap to formulate the drink.
“We grew up on birch, pretty much. Our grandma always had it in the springtime and then she put it aside fermenting. So, because we couldn't get it anywhere else we figured fermenting gives all these good probiotic bacterium and we wanted to go forward and try it on the market,” Theisen said.
So far, the sour variety is gaining traction with consumers interested in health, nutrition and sport but for regular consumers the strong smell remains a “negative surprise”, she said.
“It's going good in those health-conscious circles and with sports people because there are no sugars in there; they really value it and it's a really good thirst-quencher after sports.”
ÖselBirch now wants to research the fermentation of birch more closely to establish how the sour smell could be masked without losing the qualities and overall taste of the beverage and also understand more about how fermented birch evolves over time.
“Thus far, it actually proves to be true that if you keep it at the right temperature, it's kind of like a good wine. So, it seems like over years it gets clearer in taste but we need to find out how it changes exactly.”
For now, the fermented birch mint and lime 'mojito' variant remains the best-seller.
Functional future: Birch with a boost
Theisen said in the coming years, ÖselBirch will start to fortify its beverages with vitamins and minerals naturally found in birch, to enable functional positioning and claims.
“Functional beverages are strongly growing, especially in the sports section, and we really, really do want to claim the health benefits of birch sap,” she said. “...We're probably going to go with electrolytes – try that one first. Calcium and magnesium would be great, but we need to go through that with the development lab. It's more an idea on the drawing board at the minute.”
For now, ÖselBirch is focused on kickstarting exports and raising further finance through another crowdfunding campaign to enable fresh sap collection and in-house fermentation.