The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Birch syrup

Plugging a maple holeAre you pulling out your maple taps and plugging the holes? Maybe it's time to tap a birch!

Birch trees begin running around when sugar maples let up, making them a good second crop for people who have already invested in the equipment for the former and want to extend their syruping season. But birch syrup isn't the same as maple syrup, of course. For one thing, the former sells for a lot more --- maple syrup tends to go for thirty-something dollars per gallon, while birch syrup sells for (by some estimates) ten times that much.

What's with the excessively high price? I think some of the appeal is simply that birch syrup is a niche product, added to which you have to boil down about three times as much birch sap as maple sap to make syrup. Birch syrup is also reputed to be a bit trickier to produce since you have to be more careful to keep the sap from scorching, which likely adds to the price tag. On the plus side, birch syrup is supposed to have a lower glycemic index than maple syrup and table sugar, being closer to the value of honey and sorghum molasses. In addition, birch syrup is often treated as a healthful tonic, perhaps because the extra boiling means that you're concentrating more minerals in each spoonful of syrup.

Birch sap

Mark and I aren't interested in selling birch syrup, but since our maples stopped running last week, we figured we might as well tap a birch tree and see what all the fuss is about. I have to admit that I've only boiled down the barest smidgen of syrup (made from about three pints of sap), but I can tell that birch syrup is very different from maple syrup. For one thing, the former is much darker, even in the sap stage. The photo above shows condensed sap that began life as one gallon of liquid and will still need to be boiled down considerably before it becomes true syrup. As you can see, the condensed sap is already much darker than the box-elder syrup beside it.

Tapping a birch

Another difference between maple and birch syrup is flavor, although this factor will vary depending on which species of birch you're tapping. Most birch syrup sold in the U.S. is made from Paper Birch or Alaska Birch grown in (you guessed it) Alaska, but our much more southern clime means that Black Birch is our common species. Although Black Birch twigs taste strongly of wintergreen, I didn't notice any wintergreen flavor in the syrup we sampled. Instead, the dark liquid reminded me of sorghum molasses, and I'd likely use my birch syrup in the same recipes I use with that southern staple sweetener.

I'd be curious to hear from folks who have tapped birch trees and made their own syrup. What did you think of the flavor and how did you use it in the kitchen?

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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When I was a child in the fourties, a neighbor used to make a soda type drink called birch beer. It tasted very similar to root beer, but was made with a birch base. I have no idea how it was made. I only remember that it good. Thought maybe you might be interested in knowing about it.
Comment by Allan @ St. Chuck, MO Tue Mar 24 11:49:00 2015

Wow, it is much cheaper in your neck of the woods! A gallon of maple syrup here is around $65-70.... our sugar season is still going on... we maybe have another week and a half, but I am intrigued at tapping birch. We do have some paper birch here.
i remember birch beer from when I was a kid also.. as I recall it was similar to root beer, with a hint of wintergreen.

Comment by deb Tue Mar 24 22:32:34 2015
I have tapped both paper and yellow birch in the northern part of Michigan. They were both boiled separately. The yellow birch syrup tastes more potent and has more of an iron flavor. Drinking the sap as is on its own is very refreshing. In this part of the country the sap only is good for both boiling and drinking for about 10 days, after that it fermented as it came from the tree, and tasted very nasty. When the sap tastes bad from the tree do not boil down into syrup any longer! The sap also runs day and night and runs a lot more sap than maples do. Good uses for syrup include adding it in at about a rate of: a teaspoon of syrup per pint of food. Good foods to add to include: grains, sauces, mix into stews, baked into breads, mix into teas, starchy vegetable dishes ( carrots, potatoes, turnips,etc.).
Comment by k Fri Mar 27 14:28:18 2015
Birch water is a big thing over in scandonavia, the water direct from the tree is used for many different things, it sugar is easily processed by the body, so it is big in sports drinks, most "sugar free" chewing gums all over the world contain xylitol which is pure birch sugar, the picture of the sap you posted is not so god, it should be very clear, when cloudy like this it is been tapped to late, I freeze mine to use all year or take the slow slow process of boiling down to make syrup, which taste very interesting, like drinking the forest, it is used in many top end restaurants here, Noma etc..... anyways god luck, the birch tree can be used for many things, it's bark is excellent for fires and also etable, creat a kiln and ur can produce a tar/ resIn that can water proof or burn torches, sorry about spelling
Comment by Lee Thu Mar 30 16:43:32 2017

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