Guest Post: How to Tap a Birch!

IMG_7554aThe following post is by “Wildman” Fergus Drennan, an expert forager in the U.K. who is preparing to embark on a year-long adventure of full-time foraging! Click here to learn more about that. (And stay tuned — I’ll be interviewing Fergus very soon on this site!)

The Sap is Rising: Collecting birch sap for mineral water, wine, beer, vinegar and syrup

I’ve a confession: although my long-standing interest in wild food cookery does add incredibly wild and nutritious versatility to my daily menu with respect to rich soups, unique salad combinations and intriguing side vegetables – all very health promoting and worthy; truth be told, I’m actually somewhat of a sugar addict. Yet, for the most part, sweet wild foods are associated with the abundant fruitfulness of summer and autumn – apples, pears, cherries, blackberries, bilberries, mulberries etc, and as delicious as such fruits are in their unprocessed state or as fruit leathers, their sweetness is invariably counterbalanced by varying degrees of acidity. Hardcore, unadulterated and non-toxic sweetness is actually quite hard to come by in the natural world, at least where I live.

IMG_7565aYet, from as early as the final week of February (Southern England) until as late as the end of April (Scotland), and with a similar early to later coming of the spring across the different states of the US, that hardcore sweetness lies quite literally in untapped abundance, residing in diluted form within the trunks of some of our commonest trees: Birch (Betula species), Lime (Tilia species), Sycamore (Acer species), Walnut and various others. All, in theory, can be successfully tapped for their sap, the first two providing the best results in my experience. Birch, especially, is fail safe!. Indeed, on the basis of research and reports of success in this regard, I’ve tried to tap both walnut and sycamore for sap from February to April for the past 7 years, but without success. This year I intend to try our only UK native maple for the first time: The Field Maple (Acer campestre). For the purpose of this article then, ‘sap’ refers to birch sap only.

But why bother doing this? This is a question I’m frequently asked, quite often by people who have tried and have been disappointed that what drips from the tree tastes pretty much like water, not the sweet ambrosial nectar they had expected. Well, it’s a reasonable question I suppose. There are many answers. In the Ukraine and parts of Russia the sap is collected and sold as a type of mineral water, so they clearly value it. A fantastic, easy to make and reliable white wine can be made with a very distinct and pleasant taste, as well as beer, vinegar (see recipe at the end) and a rich caramel and molasses-like syrup. But, above all else, as with all foraging, it provides an excuse and opportunity to arrange your life according to the cycles of nature rather than the oppressive dictates of work routines and the terrible tick-tock tyranny of clock time or even traditional calendars. Each year I try to refine my understanding of when the sap flow begins and when it’s in full swing. This year it begun a day before the spring equinox, 5 days after reports that frogspawn was appearing in local ponds, and two days before the wood ants began to awake from winter slumber as they amassed to form new colonies. This is the realm of magic, awareness, and attunement, connecting with life, poetry and mystery and clocks serve no purpose!

IMG_4000The sap then, which is actually about 95% + water, minerals and a little sugar, can be evapourated off to make a sublimely delicious if somewhat energy intensive syrup – it is the absolutely perfect accompaniment to elderflower fritters. In fact, the only near equivalent you can buy in this country is maple syrup. That is commercially viable because the ratio of sap required for a litre of syrup is 30:1, whereas for birch it is between 80 and 120:1 (I usually find that a 95:1 ratio is perfect). But don’t let that put you off. Once you’ve tasted birch sap syrup, the effort required to make it will seem more than worthwhile. For those who are unconvinced there are several other excellent uses for the sap once collected as I shall explain below, as well as various birch-related bushcraft skills to practice while the sap is simmering. First, though, how exactly is it obtained?

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6 thoughts on “Guest Post: How to Tap a Birch!

  1. Pingback: Q&A: Can Fergus Eat Wild for a Year? | First Ways

  2. One of the best country wines I mad while in the UK was birch sap. It turned out a wonderful, light, dry wine with a taste of woody earthiness that somehow suggested sake (as in the rice wine). It was better at 6 months than 18 months aged.

  3. @ David, you need to take all your clothes off and dance 3 x clockwise and 3x anti clockwise around the tree, singing a special mantra!
    If that doesn’t work you could either make a birch bark container stitched really well so it’s water tight or, as I’ve done (this is not a joke), tan the bladders of wild animals. To do that completely primitively you’ll probably need to make some billows out of brain tanned hides, cordage and logs and create a furnace to smelt some iron pyrite to make a metal pan for boiling up your tannin rich bark or acorns – you could cast a drill bit too). Alternatively you could knapp some flint or obsidian to bore a hole with. For a tap you can use any firm stemmed and non-toxic pithy stem after removing the pith. Or, using your primative collection vessel, you can snap the top inch off trees, bend them over and stake them down with sticks and strong natural cordage you have made, and tie on the bladders. There are many many possibilities.
    I think it is always a useful excercise to try and work out how to do these things in a primative way. What are your thoughts Dave?

  4. Hi There, I already know how to tap for birch sap (or maple), but Ive been moving more into primitive skills, do you know a way to tap without a knife or tools?

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