This summer my goal is to gather or harvest at least one plant a month. Usually I gather fiddlehead ferns and fireweed shoots in May, pick wild strawberries in June (I can’t disclose my secret spot!), hunt for boletes in the mid/late summer and harvest berries in the fall.
When UAF Cooperative Extension Service tweeted about birch tree tapping in mid-April, I knew I had to start my harvesting season early. I texted my good friend Ivan, knower of all things apian, and he told me I could find spiles, or birch tree taps, at Alaska Mill & Feed. I have several big birches in my yard, so it was worth a try!
With just a little hardware and a whole lot of stove time, you can have your own homemade birch syrup (I still haven’t reached syrup state, but you’ll see what I came up with in the meantime if you read below). I didn’t take step-by-step photos only because they would be pretty boring. It’s a lot of boiling. Follow this handy guide for a complete explanation.
Please keep in mind that I’ve never done this before, so I have no idea whether I’m doing it incorrectly. The instructions below is what worked for us. Let me know if you use a different/better technique!
Birch Tree Tapping in Anchorage
- 2 or more 7/16″ birch tree spiles ($5.99 each at Alaska Mill & Feed)
- 7/16″ drill bit
- Power drill
- Rubber mallet
- 2 or more 2-gallon buckets
- 3 or more 5-gallon buckets
- Tall kitchen bags
- Wire sieve
- Two large soup pots
- Small saucepan
- Lots of freezer space
- Candy thermometer
Starting in mid-April when the ground begins to thaw and the leaves haven’t yet emerged, set out on a tree hunt. Look for trees at least eight inches in diameter that aren’t along any roadways or in areas treated with pesticides. The trees shouldn’t have any fungi growing on them, as that’s an indication that it’s a dying tree, according to the guide I followed.
Make sure your spiles, drill bit and buckets are clean, sanitized and dry.
Using your power drill with the 7/16″ drill bit, drill a 1.5-inch hole about 4 feet up from the bottom of the tree. Drill at a slight upward angle. If your tree is sappy it should start dripping as soon as you drill. The wood that you drill should be clean and light colored. If it’s dark colored it means it’s a dying tree and you should find a different tree to tap.
Use the rubber mallet to hammer the taps into the tree. Hang your 2-gallon bucket from the tap and cover with a trash bag. We used push pins to hold the bags in place.
That’s it for phase 1. Check back in about 5 hours ’cause these buckets fill up fast! We got five gallons in the first day. The sap should be as clear as water and tastes about the same. If it’s discolored at all then the sap is no good and you should try a different tree.
When your buckets are full, transfer the sap to the 5-gallon buckets. Pour the sap through a wire sieve to remove any large particles.
Now it’s your decision to start the boiling phase right away or wait to collect more sap. It all depends on your freezer space. The sap needs to remain cold, below 41 degrees F, so either freeze the sap or start boiling down and then freeze the concentrated sap. It takes a whole lotta sap to make syrup. My guide says 100 gallons of sap is used for 1 gallon of syrup.
We froze 15 gallons of sap and then thawed it all out over one weekend and boiled it down.
The boiling phase
Pick a rainy, boring weekend for the boiling down phase cause you’ll be spending 8 or so hours doing this. Clean and dry a couple of big soup pots and fill them with sap. Cover, turn heat to high and bring to a rolling boil. Remove the lids and boil the sap down till two inches of liquid remains. It should turn a light amber color at this point. Transfer liquid to a smaller saucepan and continue to boil down. In the meantime, refill your big pots with sap and repeat the whole process.
When the small saucepan has boiled down to a couple of cups, turn off the heat and let it cool. Line a sieve with cheesecloth and set over a large liquid measuring cup. Pour the concentrated sap through the sieve to remove any remaining particles. Store in large clean jars in the fridge.
What you should have now is a dark amber liquid, slightly sweet, that’s about the consistency of simple syrup, which brings us (finally) to a phase where we can actually start using this stuff.
Birch Old Fashioned
- 2 oz. Canadian whiskey
- 2 oz. birch simple syrup
- Dash of bitters
- squeeze of fresh lemon
- lemon twist for garnish
Place two large ice cubes in a rocker glass and pour in the whiskey and syrup. Add the bitters and a squeeze of lemon. Stir and garnish with a lemon twist.
After you’ve treated yourself to a lovely homemade cocktail, pour your concentrated sap into clean 2-gallon buckets, cover and freeze for another day of boiling down.
The syrup phase
In the interest of timeliness of this blog post, I haven’t started this phase, so I’ll list what I plan on doing.
Thaw the concentrated sap and transfer to pots. Bring to a boil and make sure there is more than 2 inches of liquid in the pot at all times as the sap can burn easily in this phase. Keep a close eye on the temperature with a candy thermometer. The sap should reach 225°–28°F. If steam is still rising off the sap it means there is still water left to evaporate, so keep simmering, being sure not to exceed 228 degrees.
Let your syrup cool. If it’s too thin for your preference you can reheat to 180 degrees and evaporate more water.
Pour through a cheesecloth-lined sieve to remove any particles. Store in clean canning jars and process the jars as you would jam. Refer to this pamphlet for a very detailed guide.
Stay tuned next month for a post about fiddlehead ferns and fireweed shoots!