If you’re wondering how to tap birch trees to evaporate the sap into birch syrup, it’s probably best to ask the Alaskans. (Free podcast idea: “Ask the Alaskans.”) They don’t have many maples, but they’ve got plenty of birch trees, and the birch syrup industry is booming. If you’re looking to produce larger scale, you’ll want to read “Best Practices for Producing Quality Birch Syrup,” published by the Alaska Birch Syrupmakers’ Association. But if you’re just looking for a smaller scale, backyard birch setup, the information here is what we relied on for our first batch of birch syrup last year.
Which Birch Trees Can I Tap?
In Alaska they’re generally tapping Alaska birch, but in the Lower 48 there are other types of birches that can be tapped. Last year we tapped black birches, but you can also tap silver birch and white birch. Only tap trees that are 8″ in diameter or larger.
When Do I Tap My Birches?
If you live in Alaska, mid-April. If you’re not so lucky, it’s slightly earlier, after the maple sap is done running, and a couple of weeks before leaves develop. Here in southern Vermont, this means early April. The sap will run for 2–3 weeks.
How Do I Tap the Birches?
The approach to tapping birch trees is the same as tapping maples, with one exception: it’s recommended to only put one tap in each birch tree, regardless of its size. Here are the steps: Choose your tree. Boil your spiles to sterilize them. Drill a hole in the tree, with a bit size that matches your spile size (7/16″ or 5/16″), at a slightly upward angle, 1.5–3″ into the tree. (If the wood shavings that come out are white, you’re good to go. If they’re brown or another color, that’s a dying tree. Choose another.) Hang your collection bucket. And then, patience, grasshopper.
A few notes: You’ve got several options for types of spiles and collection containers. There are easy kits to get you going, and there’s also fancier stainless steel spiles for hanging buckets or jugs or bags. We use hanging buckets for about half of our maple taps, but also use five-gallon buckets for our maple stands that have many taps close together. We haven’t tried the tubing-to-bucket approach with birches.
Also, for a more in-depth description of tapping, go read the U of Alaska Fairbanks Extension publication. Not necessary, but if you’re curious.
What Are the Differences Between Tapping Maples and Birches?
While the approach to tapping is the same, the similarities end thereabouts. Like maples, a mature birch will produce around a gallon of sap a day; and like maples, the processing requires evaporating water content to concentrate the sugar content.
But here are the differences. The sap that comes out of the tree is clear as water, and in that sap are fructose and glucose, while maple sap is mostly sucrose. Fructose burns more easily than sucrose, so the evaporation process requires a bit more care. That is, you can’t just get a roaring fire going under it and leave it be. Low and slow is the approach here, especially when you get nearer the finished product. Oh and here’s the kicker: That finished product is significantly farther away, since the ratio of sap to syrup is around 120–to-1, compared to maple’s 40-to-1 ratio. You’re there when, like maple, the syrup is at 67 on the Brix scale, or 7 degrees Fahrenheit above the boiling point of water at your altitude.
We do use the same evaporator setup for maples and birches, but the fire we build underneath the birch sap is smaller. Then we move it inside to our propane stovetop. Remember how much moisture will be coming off the pot—you probably don’t want to do the entire process indoors, especially if you have wallpaper… We made our syrup evaporator for under $50.
(Or you could just drink the sap itself. There’s a Vermont company that sells maple and birch sap.)
What Does Birch Syrup Taste Like?
Birch syrup tastes significantly different from maple syrup because of the differences in chemical composition (obviously). The internet will give you all sorts of different descriptions—molasses-ey is a common one. When we tapped our black birches last year, the syrup ended up with hints of fruitiness—which is no surprise considering the main sugar is fructose.
What Are Some Birch Syrup Uses?
Most birch syrup producers don’t recommend using birch syrup on pancakes, since the flavor is slightly more savory (I use that word reluctantly, since it is still 67% sugar…). Instead, birch syrup is recommended for use in glazes, sauces, marinades, and baking. Recipes abound online. Here are two:
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