Tapping Birch Trees
by Jackie Bower

Birch trees are a tremendous
New England commodity.

The wood is used for a variety
of products, from furniture,
flooring and fuel to kitchen utensils, toys and Popsicle sticks. The trees
enhance the beauty of our landscape while providing food and shelter for
wildlife. Yet birch trees offer another valuable resource that remains
untapped here in the northeast -- the

Like sugar maples, the sap that flows up through birch trees in early spring is
sweet and tasty. It also contains important vitamins and minerals, like vitamin
C, potassium, manganese, and calcium. Herbalists and Native American
Indians have long known of its medicinal benefits but its place in the
confectionery market is yet to be determined. Europeans are bottling birch
sap, Alaskans are producing syrup from it, and a sole New Hampshire Master
Gardener is making beer.

There are plenty of birches scattered throughout New England, so why aren't
more enterprising Yankees tapping birch trees? Hillsborough County
Cooperative Extension forester agent Jon Nute told me he thinks it's tradition.
Sugar maples are plentiful in what we call the sugar bush. We've established
a nice niche in the maple industry. Marketing birch might be a tough sell.
Perhaps all we need is a little education.

Birch Syrup an Emerging Cottage Industry

The production of birch syrup is an emerging cottage industry in Alaska. No
sugar maple trees grow there but plenty of birches do, and the population is
chock full of adventurers willing to try something new. Within the last
decade, a handful of hearty souls have been developing a commercial
operation that is causing other syrup producers to sit up and take notice. In
recent years, they've been producing between a thousand and 1500 gallons of
birch syrup annually and marketing it as a unique Alaskan delicacy.

Tapping birch trees is much like tapping maple, but the similarity between
the two ends there. In spring, when the sap begins to flow, a hole is drilled
into the tree and a spout, called a spile, is inserted to direct the sap into a
bucket or through a plastic tube. (For what it's worth-early collectors of maple
sap used buckets made from birch bark.) Here's the biggest reason New
Englanders may be less than enthused about producing birch syrup: the
actual sugar content of birch sap is about a third that of maple. To make one
gallon of birch syrup you need upwards of a hundred gallons of sap; maple
syrup requires only forty.

Ninety-nine gallons of water is a formidable amount to extract to get a single
gallon of birch syrup. Boiling works, but it takes a lot of time and fuel.
Continued cooking of the sap also darkens the color. Dulce Ben-East, owner
of Kahiltna Birchworks and one of the early Alaska birch sap entrepreneurs,
told me reverse osmosis technology is most effective, but the equipment is
expensive; another drawback for thrifty Yankees.

The typical birch season doesn't run all that long, either. Those warm spring
days we're looking forward to are a double-edged whammy for birch sap. It
tends to spoil more quickly than maple so rising daytime temperatures may
necessitate more frequent sap collection from buckets. Plus, as soon as those
buds begin to break, the season is over. Birch sap then gets cloudy and the
taste changes dramatically.

So Why Tap Birch Trees?

For all this trouble, you must be wondering, "Why bother?" The obvious
answer would be taste. Ms. Ben-East describes birch syrup as having a
completely different flavor from maple, one that's more complex and
versatile. She says, "The flavor is deep and velvety, caramel-like; somewhat
richer to me than maple and not quite as cloyingly sweet. Don't get me wrong
-- I love the flavor of maple syrup. However, I do not try to compare apples
with oranges."

Curious New Englanders might choose the path New Hampshire Master
Gardener Diana Proctor has taken, which requires far less sap and minimal
effort. Diana has a keen interest in edible plants and medicinal herbs and
takes advantage of any opportunity to learn more. One of the topics at an herb
conference was on healing beers so she decided to give it a try with birch.

Using Stephen Harrod Buhner's book
Sacred Herbal Healing Beers for her
recipes, Diana tapped a couple of the birches on her property: one golden and
one white. She gathered about two-and-a-half gallons of sap, which she boiled
for an hour (for no other reason than to kill bacteria). Diana than added the
appropriate amount of honey, allowed it to cool, added yeast and nutrients,
and waited for it to ferment. Obviously, this is not the beverage you offer the
kids. After a couple of weeks, Diana bottled her brew and waited a few more
weeks. She reports the results were delicious, and got even better with age.
This season, if she can get through the snow, Diana hopes to gather enough
sap to make more beer and experiment with a batch of birch wine.

Tapping trees, whether birch or maple, does hurt the trees to some extent.
Any opening in a tree, whether from your tap or a broken branch, offers an
entry for insects and disease. The risk, however, seems not great. The maple
industry certainly hasn't suffered any from this practice but, obviously, the
jury's still out on birch. When the season is over, simply pull the taps and
allow the trees to heal by themselves. Covering the wounds with "Band-Aids"
of any type will do more harm than good. Although the trees will continue to
ooze for a while, especially the birches, the trees are not stressed and will
eventually stop.

Any variety of birch tree can be tapped for its sap, although golden and black
have a more distinct "wintergreen" flavor. White paper birches are just as
desirable as the others, and are certainly plentiful around New England.
Using the maple rule-of-thumb, the trees should be at least ten inches in
diameter and additional taps may be added for each five inches of girth, but
you'll be hard-pressed to find many birches that size in our region.

For more information about birch trees and the birch syrup industry, tap the
resources of the Internet. The web site of the University of Alaska Fairbanks
Cooperative Extension has some interesting articles and information on a fun
program developed for schools called "Tapping into Spring."
Birchworks will happily sell you their birch products, which include syrup as
well as candy, but you'll also find the story of how their business is evolving.
Diana Proctor has found plenty of wine recipes on the Internet but there's
nothing like paging through resources from local wine- and beer-making
supply outlets, bookstores and the library, especially while you're waiting for
that sap to flow.

Call the UNH Cooperative Extension's Family, Home & Garden Education
Center's Info-Line toll free at 1-877-398-4769 for "Practical Solutions to
Everyday Questions." Trained volunteers are available to answer your
questions Monday through Friday from 9:00am to 2:00pm.

About the author: Jackie Bower is a Master Gardener at the University of New
Hampshire Cooperative Extension, Hillsborough County
Birch Trees
The Heart of New England - Subscribe Today - It's Free!
The Heart of New England
Celebrating the unique character & culture of Maine ~ New Hampshire ~ Vermont
Click here to get your
FREE subscription to
The Heart of New England
weekly newsletter (and get
your free desktop

Bring the heart of
New England into your
home with beautiful,
affordable, high-quality
New England prints.
Visit our
New England Art Gallery

Click here for more about
Life in New England
©The Heart of New England online magazine
...celebrating the unique character & culture of Maine, New Hampshire & Vermont!
Contact| The Heart of New England HOME | Search

Click Here to Get Your FREE Weekly Newsletter Today!