06 April 2011

An encounter with "birch water" (birch sap)

One of my first garden chores this spring was to tidy up a flower bed near the front door.  Last year a birch tree cluster had begun to shadow the bed, so on Monday I pruned a few branches, then sat down to clear some of the detritus of dead material from the flowerbed.  Several minutes later, I noticed that a liquid was dripping down onto the area where I was working.  I looked up to see sap dripping from several of the pruned birch branches.

Several years ago I would have thought no more about it except to view the oozing as a fortuitous feast for any early-emerging Mourning Cloak butterflies.  But two years ago I wrote a post about the drinking of birch tree juice in Russia, and just last month posted a photo of a "sugar-sickle" (frozen dripping tree sap).

I couldn't pass up the opportunity. I used rubber bands to secure sandwich-sized Ziploc bags on the two clipped branches.  By the time I had finished gardening that afternoon, the bag (shown above) had accumulated quite a bit of liquid, and to my surprise it was beautifully clear:
I suppose I had expected some coloration or cloudiness.  When I came out Tuesday morning, I was startled to find both bags substantially distended with birch sap.  It was now impossible to unwind the rubber band, so I brought out a scissors, intending to snip it, then decided it would make more sense to snip a small hole in the Ziploc bag to drain the fluid.  Placing a hole at the top of the bag allowed me
to tip the bag's contents into a container and then leave the bag on the branch to accumulate more fluid.

The next step, of course, was to search the internet for more information.  At Naturespeak I found directions for concentrating maple sap into syrup and into maple candy (a nice article, worth a visit by those interested).  The best source of information I found was at BirchBoy.com, with articles written by people in Alaska, where apparently birch juice processing is an honored pasttime:
Birch syrup is one of the few taste treats unique to Alaska and the circumpolar region. Although many people have never heard of it, birch syrup is not new. Birch trees, like many northern hardwoods, have long been tapped for their sugary, invigorating sap; but because of maple's high sugar content, generous sap flow, mellow flavor, and compliant nature, maple became the premier sugar tree in North America - except for Alaska, where birch trees are plentiful and maples are small and scarce. Birch syrup would have been the only springtime sugar source for Alaska sourdoughs in remote areas. For every gallon of birch syrup he made, the sourdough would have tapped no fewer than a hundred trees, collected more than one hundred gallons of sap, and burned nearly a cord of wood. Folklore relates that the syrup boiled down in open pans was tart, robust, and very dark, but the sourdough must have guarded and savored every drop. Neither did he have to worry much about spoilage, since pure, thick birch syrup seems incorruptible...
There is an outstanding amount of information at that link on the science of birch sap and the techniques for its harvest and for protecting the trees, and the subtleties of rendering it down to a syrupy consistency.

I haven't decided yet whether to undertake that aspect of the adventure.  Everything I've read suggests the process is time-consuming and needs to be undertaken with some degree of care to avoid scorching the concentrate.  I have about a half-liter of fluid now, because the trees are still dripping into this third day (memo to self: in the future don't prune when the sap is running).  That half-liter would be worth about 25 Euros in the Japanese market, so rather than waste it I decided to have some last night with my dinner.

I had a small glass of birch sap with my takeout Chinese food dinner last night.  It tastes pretty much like very fresh water, with maybe just a subtle hint of earthy overtones.  It goes well with General Tso's Chicken.

15 comments:

  1. I fondly remember early Spring days collecting sap from my grandfather's maple trees. We tapped about 40-50 trees every year, eventually producing a total of about 3-4 gallons of dark, faintly-smoky maple syrup. One of my favourite memories is of pausing during the hot work of collecting the syrup (by hand, in 5 gal buckets - in snow sometimes well past your knees!) and taking a long, satisfying drink of the sap straight from the old coffee cans my grandpa would hang from the trees to collect it. The sap was so cold it made your teeth and head ache, but my God it was good. And invigorating. It tasted faintly like bark, and I remember thinking it tasted like how a maple tree smells.

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  2. We made home-made maple syrup when I was a teenager living in upstate New York. First time, we made the mistake of cooking it down over an open fire. The smoke overwhelmed the flavor. After that, we cooked it down on the stove, very slowly. It took a lot of gathered sap to make a small amount of syrup. Of course, to make it go further, my parents would only cook it down as far as 'light amber'. It would cook down to a molasses consistancy if we let it (and one night it did).

    Fond memories. Too bad we don't have any trees to tap here.

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  3. Perhaps strangely, or perhaps not since I am somewhat addicted, was to use the sap-water to brew coffee. Maybe drip coffee? Not sure if it would work, but it would be fun and it looks like you have plenty to go around.

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  4. Hello once again from Latvia! ;)
    As you have mentioned in your previous article birch sap (bērzu sula - in Latvian in case you want to Google it) is very popular in Russia. But not only in Russia - all over eastern Europe as well (Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for sure).

    It can even be bought here in supermarkets for ~4$ per 5 litre bottle. http://www.berzusula.com/pardod.html

    While best consumed as fresh as possible, it can also be fermented and consumed almost whole year round.

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  5. Reply to Mike:

    You can do most of what my grandpa referred to as the "rough boiling" outside. He'd boil it down outside until it just started to thicken up, then would tranfer it inside for the "finish boil". That leaves it with just a faint, pleasantly-smoky (not stinky or overwhelming) taste.

    One important note: you also need some sort of stovepipe to direct most of the smoke away from the open pan of boiling sap.

    My grandpa's boiling setup consisted of a long, narrow firebox (about 5' long, 18-20"wide) roughly lined with bricks and stones, dug width-wise into the natural slope of a hill. this had a length of stovepipe jammed loosely into one end, and a rough 'door' consisting of a scrap of sheet tin at the other. Once a good fire had burned and banked down a little, a long, shallow sheet-metal tray was set over this and filled with about 2" or less of sap. It would slowly boil in one or two spots, and an old cream separator with a spigot was used periodically to slowly trickle a steady stream of fresh sap into the boiling pan. A long poker/fire rake was used to push the embers back along the length of the firebox, and fresh wood was added to the front. Also, a small piece of flat wood (cedar shingles work really well) was used periodically to skim the brownish, foamy scum from the surface of the boiling sap. (If you drip this foamy stuff onto some packed snow, it's really good to eat when it cools. As long as you don't kind eating a few bark chips and such along with it!)

    ps: It sure does take a lot of sap. I believe the sap/syrup ratio is 40:1 for maple and 80:1 for birch (!!)

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  6. I grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Birch Beer (a distant cousin of Root Beer?) was served in drive-ins and lunch counters in the area.

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  7. I'm delighted to hear that. My paternal ancestors came from Pennsylvania Dutch country.

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  8. Thanks for the long post on techniques. I'll keep it in mind if we get the chance to do it again.

    As far a Birch Beer goes, I love it. It tastes much like root beer. You can purchase it in the spring and fall at local festivals in Missouri.

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  9. An early spring storm once tore a branch off a lovely birch in my garden in Lemont, Illinois. When the warmth of spring rose, the birch water also rose, and a veritable flock of yellow bellied sapsuckers (6-12) descended on that poor tree and drilled the entire trunk for 3 lateral feet full of perfectly spaced holes, sort of like the "ConnectFour" game, albeit with far more holes. I figured they were attracted by the drippings from the wound. While I was mesmerized by the symmetry of the holes they drilled, I was terrified of losing the tree. Fortunately, it survived, with a nice "tattoo" as a badge of courage. Of course, that might be because my husband zip tied several yards of quilt batting up and down the length of the tree for a few weeks after the first holes appeared..... Thank you for reminding me of this. I ADORE your blog, by the way!

    Kara in Ohio

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  10. Can you make booze out of it?

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  11. I don't know if it would work for birch or maple sap, but have you tried cooking it in a crock pot witht the lid off? I do this to cook down fresh pumpkin instead of using the oven or stovetop, and it works very well without scorching or having to stir it a lot (you only need to stir 2 or 3 times in one day for pumpkin). You might want to try it with a few ounces just to see if it will reduce, then try a bigger batch.

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  12. I was able to boil it down in a pot on the stove. When I get back to regular blogging, I'll post pix of the raw and concentrated juice and some gustatory impressions.

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  13. I just tried birch water for the first time tonight at a seedling exchange and potluck. Never even heard of it before and I'm a lifelong Alaskan! It was quite good, and very refreshing.
    Susan
    http://alaskazen.wordpress.com

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  14. My father used to collect the sap of the birch trees and made birch sap wine. It was a yearly event and he would look forward to each years batch!

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