Following in the footsteps of popular coconut water, birch juice is emerging as the latest trendy health drink in Germany and Austria. The thin, watery sap is harvested by tapping wild, mature birch tree trunks, and is only produced during the early spring thaw after the winter freeze. Recognised for its high content of antioxidants, electrolytes and vitamins, birch juice has been a popular drink and herbal remedy in Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and parts of Northern China for centuries.

Hyped as a low-calorie and naturally functional beverage in the US market, birch juice, which is also marketed as birch water or birch sap and comes in both plain and flavoured varieties, has also been experiencing increased recognition in Europe. Between 2014 and 2015, birch juice launch activity gained steam, led by the UK, which accounted for one in five new product introductions, followed by Germany, Finland and Denmark.

While there is no recognised “plant sap” category, birch juice – like coconut water – is positioned as a healthy and naturally functional alternative at the intersection of various drink sectors, including fruit juice, energy drinks, carbonated soft drinks and flavoured water. Said to provide hydration, boost immunity and help combat fatigue, birch juice offers an advanced better-for-you positioning that traditional fruit juices lack. It could thus provide an alternative to the half of German consumers who are interested in juices with functional benefits.

Following the example set by coconut water, a number of birch juice brands are in fact leveraging their health appeal by using the word “water” in the product name. Moreover, market players are aiming to capture consumers’ interest by talking about birch juice’s Northern origin and century-long tradition. As described in the Mintel Global Food & Drink 2016 trend ‘Based on a True Story’, consumers are increasingly looking for products with verified claims and background information. Some brands are thus highlighting the short and unpredictable harvest window during the spring thaw, which makes production tricky yet, at the same time, special and exclusive.

While new product launch activity is dominated by the American “Sealand Birk” brand, launch activity is also boosted by the young Austrian-based “Birkengold”. In late 2015, the company significantly widened its distribution and extended its offering beyond domestic natural food stores to Germany’s influential Alnatura chain.

Birkensaft      Birch Water      Sealand Birk    Organic Birch Water

As seen in the case of coconut, which has appeared everywhere from water to dairy, bakery, and even beer, birch as a lead ingredient is also starting to spread to other drink and food sectors. In Scandinavia and the UK, sparkling “Buddha” birch soft drinks, formulated with birch sap concentrate, have found their way onto store shelves. The Lithuanian Kelmes Pienine dairy brand, meanwhile, has introduced a yogurt with birch leaf extract which is said to feature “the flavour of spring”. And in Germany and Austria, birch sugar, a table sweetener containing 100% xylitol, derived from birch trees, has been launched not only in natural food stores but also into mainstream supermarkets and discounters such as Aldi.

Original Sparkling Birch Water Yogurt with Honey & Birch Leaf ExtractBirch Sugar

Coconut water has paved the way for healthy, low-calorie plant-based “waters” which provide a natural element of functionality. As part of the growing plant juice market in Europe, birch juice taps into consumers’ growing desire for healthier drinks, providing a more natural alternative to some of the synthetic drinks consumers are increasingly avoiding. The market in Germany and Austria is set to see a growing variety of new contenders going forward, so brands should adopt a more modern approach with captivating background stories to stand out on shelves.

Julia Buech is a Food and Drink Analyst at Mintel. She specialises in delivering insights on issues affecting the German food and drink market, providing analysis across a range of food and drink categories. Previously Trend & Innovation Consultant at Mintel, Julia was responsible for providing tailored product innovation analysis and client support primarily to Mintel’s German speaking clients.

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