Click for the full audio story:
Today we’re making birch syrup. Peter’s Creek resident Erik Johnson never misses a chance to harvest Alaska’s bounty, and recently he expanded his gatherings to birch sap. He says now is the perfect time to start.
“The sort of folk sign that the birch is ready is when you see your first mosquito, it means its time and the birch is running,” Johnson says.
Johnson says the sap will run until about mid May. And although the window of time is short, you won’t need to spend much time setting up.
“All you need is a five gallon bucket, a hammer, a drill with 7/16 bit, and what is called a spiel,” Johnson says. The spiel is a cone-shaped piece of plastic that is hammered into the tree, allowing the sap to flow into the bucket. As far as which birch tree to tap, Johnson looks for one with a wide diameter.
“First thing I like to do is take off any lose pieces of bark, because undoubtedly that will fall into your bucket as you mess with the tree,” Johnson says. He then drills a hole about 2 inches deep into the tree. He says you’ll want the hole at about chest height, on the north side of the tree.
“The bucket then hangs on the north side, mostly out of the sunshine. The reason you want that is because if the bucket warms up with the sun in the warm spring weather things can start growing in the sap and contaminate it. So it’s best to keep it out of the sun as much as possible,” Johnson says.
Next, he hammers the spiel in.
“You don’t want to tap it too hard, because you don’t want too much wood pressure where you won’t have the sap flow out. And you certainly don’t want to put it in so far that you crack the wood and damage the tree more. So now we have it in the tree and you’ll see in just a moment, it will start to flow out,” Johnson says.
And almost immediately, the sap starts to drip. It looks just like water; clear, with a high viscosity. Johnson says it doesn’t take long to get a substantial amount of sap.
“I’ll come back in 24 hours and there will probably be a gallon of sap in the bottom of this bucket, and then it will be time to process. This is the easy part,” Johnson says.
The hard part as you might guess is the processing. Johnson will have to boil the sap down into syrup. He says it takes longer than most people think.
“Birch sap does not have a lot of sugar in it. And because of that, compared to say maple sap, you have to evaporate it a lot more. So it takes 100 gallons of birch sap to make one gallon of birch syrup,” Johnson says.
To evaporate it, Johnson pours the sap into a roasting pan. He filters it through a nylon mesh bag to get rid of the bark and stray bugs. Next, the roasting pan goes on a hot stove top. “My guess is it will take four to five hours to reduce this much sap down to syrup,” Johnson says.
Johnson says you can use the sap different ways, at different times. The most common is to boil it down to syrup, but Johnson says you can reduce it until it starts to turn a light amber color. That sap can be used to brew birch beer or wine. Or, Johnson says you don’t even need to reduce the sap, you could just drink it right out of the tree.
“Some people simply tap birch trees to drink the sap the same way they would fill up a water bottle. So this year I’ll probably do that, take a few gallons of sap, put it in a big jug, and drink it as a spring tonic,” Johnson says.
Needless to say, Johnson loves the flavor of birch. But he says it’s an acquired taste. “Birch is a very different flavor. It’s not for everyone, I do enjoy it on my pancakes and my beer, but there are some people like my wife and kids for instance that reach for the maple syrup every time,” Johnson says.
I’m eager to try this stuff, so Johnson pulls a jar of last year’s birch syrup out of his fridge.
To my palate, it tastes like birch syrup. And, that’s the best description I can think of. Alright, so I don’t have a future as a food critic. But maybe it’s because the syrup is so simply made, that is tastes so simple. Or maybe I’m just used to the smell of birch, and thus the flavor. Whatever the reason, Johnson says tapping birch sap is something every Alaskan should try at least once.
“It’s April, and there’s not much else to do. The skiing sucks and it’s not time to get into the garden yet. So in terms of finding a way to live within the seasons and harvest what’s out there, this is the time for birch.”