New worldwide drinking trend from Finnish forests
Last year British media predicted birch sap, or birch water, to be the coconut water of 2015: a worldwide drinking trend. Finnish company Nordic Koivu was onto it before others; they’ve been exporting birch sap for over a decade.
When Arto and Susanna Maaranen started planning on a family, they wanted to move to the countryside. They were on the hunt for a place close to nature for their future children to grow up in, but also a source of livelihood.
”Whilst looking for a house we listed all possible business ideas for making a living in the country,” tells Susanna.
The best idea was found in their very own garden. The newly-found house in Tohmajärvi, Finland was surrounded by a beautiful birch forest. The Maaranens didn’t want to chop down the trees, and the thought of sap came to mind.
Now Nordic Koivu’s certifiably organic, free-of-additives and without preservatives, non-pasteurised sap is being drunk around the world. 97 per cent of their production travels to Central Europe and Asia.
An idea that has won innovation awards
Arto and Susanna moved to their birch-abundant house in 1996. At the time they owned a company called Aurinkolehto, but they were constantly gathering information about birch sap from experts in different fields all over the world.
The first version of the automated collection and production lines was installed in 1999; the first commercial products were sold two years later. In 2002 Aurinkolehdo was awarded the president’s InnoFinland award, and they have also been nominated for The Outstanding Young Farmer award.
Ten years ago the company gave up its other lines of work and focused only on birch sap production.
Sap has gained interest among the more and more health-aware consumers. According to Susanna, birch sap has long been used to treat different health-related issues.
”There’s no scientific research on the health effects of birch sap, and we’re not even trying to claim it’s a medicine of any kind. It’s a healthy natural product,” Susanna emphasises.
The Central European customers of Nordic Koivu recommend birch sap for body cleansing and weight control. In cosmetics birch sap has been said to help the renewal of skin cells.
From health stores to supermarkets
The first bottles of birch sap came from the trees near the Maaranen family home. When the production was moved to a new premise, the sap was extracted from birch trees in areas rented from the municipality of Tohmajärvi. The production moved to new premises in 2012, and now the collection is done by subcontractors. Forest owners in Tohmajärvi area collect the sap using Nordic Koivu’s technology, whilst the owners focus on production, product development, and marketing.
2015 is, again, a year of change for Nordic Koivu. In the minds of some consumers, a glass bottle of organic birch sap might have seemed luxurious. Soon the company will launch a product with supermarkets in mind.
”The price of the new product is suitable for supermarkets. This way we’ll reach a whole new level of volume,” Susanna says.
Unlike the bottled product, the new line will be packaged aseptically into cans. This means they will be pasteurised, then citric acid and, in the case of berry products, fructose will be added.
The new concept means new flavours, too. Birch sap will be accompanied by combinations of birch sap and wild blueberry and birch sap and wild lingonberry. Like birch sap, both berries come from Finland and are organic.
Short harvesting period requires forward planning
The sap is collected from trees using an automatic system. A truck takes the sap to the factory, where the bottling and packaging processes are automated as well. The harvesting period lasts, at best, only some weeks.
In order to extract sap, holes need to be drilled into the tree. According to Maaranen, this doesn’t damage the birch.
”The hole will leave a mark, and sometimes a small decay. The growth of the tree isn’t affected.”
It’s easy for the owners to supervise the productions, since everything is made in Finland and, as much as possible, locally. Only bottles and caps come from abroad.
Big markets ahead
With the new concept Nordic Koivu aims at growth both at home and internationally. The company targets those European countries that yet remain untouched, and in Asia for example China, Japan, and South Korea.
“I believe there’s room for significant growth in Asia. Australia and North America offer potential for our product too,” Susanna says.
In the domestic market Nordic Koivu’s consumer products have been marginal until now. The growing selection of products is coming with the hopes of increasing the presence in Finland.
Growth means more work. Although the marriage is over, the Maaranens still work together, Susanna in sales and marketing and Arto in production and administration. Currently they have six employees year-round, but in the harvesting period 12 employees are needed for bottling alone. The new production concept will also lead to an increase in the number of staff.
Being Finnish plays an important role in Nordic Koivu’s international image. This is visible in the name of the company.
”We chose the word koivu (birch), because at least to our knowledge it doesn’t mean anything funny or strange in any language. It’s also easy to pronounce for a foreigner.”
Text: Anne Salomäki
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