Why Tap Birch Trees in the first place!?
Honestly, what else are you doing in April here in the North!? Ice fishing season is done (me crying a bit in a corner with violins playing sad music in the background). It’s too cold to plant a garden outside and there are no Spring greens to forage for yet. Soooo, this is a great hobby to pass the time! Plus, there are nutritional benefits! Birch sap is a clear, odorless liquid that looks like plain water. However, sap has many constituents contained within that water such as: Manganese, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Vitamin C, Polyphenol Antioxidants, Amino Acids, and sugars (Fructose and Glucose) and more! It’s a great Spring Tonic!
The sap in Birch trees typically starts running in late March and runs for 2-3 weeks. Sometimes on the rare occasion, you may get four weeks. Depending on Spring conditions, the season may start a bit earlier, like the 3rd week of March, or even as late as the end of the first week of April!
Here in the Prince George region in North Central BC, we have tons of Paper Birch Trees (Betula Papyrifera), so I tend to tap that species. Other species of Birch are tappable as well; some may produce better than others. So do some research to what type of Birch Trees are in your area. If you are in the Boreal or Montane regions of Western Canada, you will have Paper Birch for sure.
I like to use a “closed system” when tapping Birch trees. Birch trees tend to cast down lots of debris with the slightest breeze: moss, lichen, papery-bark bits, and twigs will all get into your containers if you do not have a lids on them. My containers generally have lids with a hole drilled on the top to allow my hose to go through. If you use other containers, like water jugs, you can drill a hole in the cap of the lid. If you do not have a cap, use newspapers or paper towels and stuff it into the neck of the water bottle/jug, to help keep debris out. Whatever you do, the idea is to 1) stop debris coming in and 2) if your container tips over…no sap is pouring out.
A picture for a quick reference: free to save and print out my beautiful and artistic drawing as a future guide!
Now…how do we Tap? What is the process? Here is a step-by-step process!
- Collect your equipment: See pictures below:
- Drill and Drill bit. Choose a drill bit the same diameter (or slightly smaller) of your spile.
- Spiles and hoses: The black spiles and blue hoses normally come together and can be ordered online. Or you can make you own spiles/hose combo by going to the hardware store. I like to use 3/8″ Stainless Steel Hose Menders/Splicers and 3/8″ vinyl food grade clear tubing (normally found in the same section as the hose menders).
- Containers: Any food grade buckets and containers will do.
- Hammer/Mallet/Pliers to tap your spile in. Note: If you use a homemade set-up, you will need a pair of pliers to get your spile out of the tree.
- Filter: After you collect you sap, you still may have gotten debris in your sap. Use a fine mesh metal sieve or coffee filter to filter the debris out at home.
- Birch dowels or corks to plug the tapping hole after the season is done. Be sure to bring your hammer back to tap the dowels in!
2. Sterilize your food-grade containers, hoses, spiles and drill bit before heading out.
3. Find a suitable Birch Tree either in your own yard, a friend’s yard, or neighbor’s yard (ask first), or on Crown Land. No tapping in in Parks!
Trees should be healthy and mature looking with a minimum of 8 inches in diameter or more and have a full canopy. Also, trees should be around an open canopy and not being crowded by other trees.
4. Pick a spot between 2-4 feet from the ground and look for a tap root going up into the tree (see diagram A). Some people have said that tapping on the south side of the tree produces better results in sap production. I found this the case only if the trees are on a southward facing hill/slope. If your tree is on flat ground, then anywhere on the tree, coming up from a tap root is fine. Note: many times, when the tree is ready to tap, there is still snow on the ground! So as the snow melts, this will cause your container to change in elevation, or even shift, causing your hose to pop out of your container. So keep this in mind!
5. Drill on a slight upward angle, about 10 degrees, 1.5 inches into the tree. Tip: don’t know how far 1.5 inches is? Take a ruler and measure 1.5 inches from the tip of the drill bit. Use a Sharpie to mark the measurement. NOTE: your drill bit should be sharp. Do not use a dull bit.
You should see sap run out right away if the season is ready. At first, it may seem like a gush of sap comes pouring out, but the sap will not continue to ‘gush’ out; it will settle down into a ‘drip…….drip……drip….’. Gently tap your spile into the hole. Sap should like water! It may have a slightly sweet and crisp taste.
6. Place hose onto spile (if it’s not already attached). Note: It can be difficult to slide your hose onto the spile. I like to bring a thermos of hot water with me. I then place one end of the hose into the hot water for a minute. This softens the plastic and makes it more pliable and allows for an easier time to slide the hose onto the spile.
7. Place the other end of the hose into the lid of your container, and make sure your lid is properly attached. If needed, secure your container, using rope, onto the tree. If your ground is nice and flat, you may not need to secure it. Tip: If you do not have rope with you and you are on uneven ground, use logs or rocks to place under your container to make it more stable. As your container begins to fill with sap, your container will get heavy and this may cause a shift in the bucket if it’s not secured or sitting evenly on the ground.
8. Check your container every 1-2 days. Your tree will produce on average 4 liters per 24 hours. Sometimes, it’s less, sometimes it’s a bit more. So, keep in mind how often you are checking it and what size container you have. You will need OTHER containers to bring your sap home.
Tip: I like to bring a tin cup with me that I leave where I’m tapping so I can scoop out a cup of sap from my containers and have a refreshing drink while I’m collecting.
9. Drink sap daily as a health tonic. You can also use sap wherever you would use water! Ex: Juice, Tea, Coffee, Soups, etc. Note: Birch sap is very high in Manganese. A single serving (300ml) can have 130% of your recommended daily intake. High consumption of Manganese can lead to Manganese toxicity. So, it is suggested to drink Birch sap in moderation. There is no evidence to how much Birch sap needs to be consumed, and for how long, to result in Manganese toxicity. I, myself drink it daily (2-3 servings a day) for 2-3 weeks with no issues. However, if you are concerned about it or have liver issues, perhaps do more research on it.
Tip: Look into making Birch sap Wine or Birch sap Mead. Your local U-Brew Place may make it for you. At my Local U-Brew Place, I bring in 20 liters of sap, and we either add White Grape Concentrate, Red Grape Concentrate, or a Fruit puree, to make it into a wonderful tasty wine. I call it my “healthy” Wine as there are so many extra vitamins, minerals, amino acids, enzymes, and antioxidants in Birch sap! 20 Liters will make you a batch of Wine which is 30 bottles!
Note: Sap can be stored in the fridge for 5-7 days. It will eventually start to ferment. It can also be frozen for later use!
10. When the season is done, remove your spiles and close the hole in the tree with a Birch dowel (can be bought at hardware stores and cut down to 2-inch lengths and then sterilized) or use a piece of sterilized wine cork cut down to the size of the hole. Use a mallet to tap the dowel or cork into the tree. You will be able to tell when the sap season is done as your clear sap will turn cloudy and opaque and it will taste and smell differently. Sap turns cloudy and Opaque when the tree starts to get ‘buddy’. Small buds starts to form on the branches and they start sending other nutrients back down the tree, thus changing the constituents and taste of the sap.
Note: sometime as the sap season progresses, you will find a pink yeast growth inside your container (generally this happens after 2 weeks into the season). This is from the natural yeasts that are present on the Birch or floating around in the air. If the sap is still running clear, just switch to a new, fresh, sterilized container. The inside of your hose may do the same thing and may even have a white sludge forming inside the hose. Replace with a fresh hose. Having a bit of this pink yeast or white sludge will cause no ill effect. Too much may alter taste and may increase the fermentation process, so just use new clean equipment.
11. Once your holes are closed up with your Birch dowels, take you equipment home and clean it, dry it and store it for next year!
Tip: Birch Trees can be tapped multiple times over the years. Ex: first year…tap the tree. Second year: tap two inches over and one inch up, from your previous years tap. Third year: two inches over and one inch up…do this until you reach halfway around the tree then stop (or just limit yourself to how many times you plan on tapping a tree). We do not want to “girdle’ the tree. Girdling will kill a tree.
Note: keep in mind, that when tapping trees, you are causing a wound. Most mature healthy trees can and will recover from that wound. However, there is always a potential for it not to heal properly which may cause decay or disease in the tree. So keep that in mind if you are tapping your tree in your yard, or a friends tree. I personally have not witnessed an old tapping hole causing an issue yet.
Tip: A tree with a diameter of 12 inches or more, can have two taps at once!
So there you have it! You tapped Birch Trees and have enjoyed its sap by itself, or in other beverages or foods. Perhaps your have even frozen some for later use to use in those refreshing summer iced-teas!? When the Stinging Nettles come up, I like to made Stinging Nettle-ade with my frozen Birch sap. Lots of great uses for Birch Sap, even Birch Syrup!
What about Birch Syrup? Do you want to make syrup with your Birch Sap? Note that it takes approximately 100 liters of sap to make 1 liter of Birch Syrup. It can be a labor of love. They do not call Birch Syrup ‘Liquid Gold’ for nothing! I’ll be making a post one day about my process of making Birch Syrup. So, for now, please research how to Make Birch Syrup on the Internet if you are interested!
If you need more help or if you have questions about Birch Tapping, please go to my Facebook page and message me. Thank-you!