Birch trees are typically prized for their lovely, papery, peeling, oftentimes white bark, and lush green foliage. But the ornamental yard trees are starting to gain popularity with syrup makers and hobbyists alike because they are relatively easy to tap.
If you are tapping birch trees for sap, you need to start before the buds on the trees begin to sprout. For most areas, that time is around mid-March to late April. Unlike maple sap which is quite sweet, birch sap has a more watery consistency with a woody, slightly sweet flavor when reduced.
You know now that birch trees, just like maple trees can be tapped to obtain delicious sap, and eventually boiled down into tasty syrup, but there are many things you should know before delving into this project. Keep reading to find out more about birch sap, how to cook it down into syrup, and how to tap the trees correctly.
Can You Even Tap A Birch Tree?
I’d tap that tree! Yes you can, and not only birch trees—any variety of birch trees can be tapped.
In fact—you can also tap walnut, beech, and alder trees as well as many more. Tree tapping supplies are readily available online, and with a small initial cost, you can begin tapping trees for sap consumption, syrup, and other products!
When Is The Best Time To Tap A Birch Tree?
If you have tapped or still do tap maple trees, then you can jump right into birch tree sap collecting directly after maple sap season is over.
Once winter’s tight grip has loosened and the nights and days are no longer dipping into freezing temps, the sap inside birch trees starts to thaw and it’s time to tap. Depending on what area you live in, that time could be between mid-March to the latter weeks of April.
A healthy birch tree during the tapping season will net you about a gallon of sap per day. If your tree is not producing any sap yet, and the leaves haven’t sprouted, give it a little time, the sap may still be thawing out.
For a cheap tapping option, consider the TAP MY TREES Spile And Hook as it’s a great budget start to birch tapping!
Find Healthy Birch Trees For The Best Sap
You want to look for birch trees that have a large canopy, get plenty of full sunlight and are at the very least 8” in diameter. They should be healthy trees without a lot of broken, dead branches, and do not have any mushrooms growing on the branches or trunk.
Those trees are dying and have a lot of deadwood on them. Birch trees don’t typically live very long compared to oak trees, or elms which both can live for hundreds of years.
If you are a beginner at foraging and using wild trees, consider getting a book such as the National Geographic: Field Guide To Trees Of North America.
Other trees to be avoided are ones located where pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals are used or sprayed. Keep away from trees lining roadways because they will have absorbed a lot of chemicals from sprays and chemical-laden water runoff along the roadways themselves.
For more information on what a proper birch tree looks like, take a look at our piece on how far birch tree roots spread!
How To Tap A Birch Tree
Now that you have picked out your healthy, mature tree that’s free of pesticides, petroleum chemicals, and other hazardous gunk, let’s get to the good part. You will need a drill and bit the size of your tap or spile. You’ll also need a hammer or rubber mallet to tap the spile in, as well as collection buckets, preferably with lids to keep out debris and bugs.
If you have tapped other trees like maple trees, then the same equipment you used for them will work for tapping birch trees. If you don’t have the equipment, Amazon.com has plenty of tree sap collecting kits or individual pieces you may need to get started.
You just want to make sure your equipment is thoroughly cleaned to prevent any cross-contamination. Make sure anything that is cutting, drilling, or being inserted into the trees, or touches the resulting sap is cleaned and disinfected.
Collecting sap from birch trees is similar to collecting sap from maple trees. Birch sap is quite different from maple sap because it contains simple sugars, fructose, and glucose, as opposed to the complex sucrose found in maple sap. Birch sap also differs in chemical composition.
Pick A Spot And Drill A Hole
Pick a spot on the tree about 3 to 4 feet above the ground, and preferably on the northern or eastern side of the tree to prevent too much sun from hitting the fresh sap. Make sure your spiles and drill bits are sterilized using rubbing alcohol or by boiling them first and drilling one hole per tree.
For regular drilling, most people recommend something like this Greenworks Hammer Drill Kit, along with something like this Liberty Supply Professional Maple Tree Tapping Bit.
The hole needs to be at a slight, upward angle. No more than 20-30 degrees. If it’s too steep, the full bucket could pull the tap right out of the tree. Only drill about an inch to an inch and a half deep into the tree—where you’re reaching the sapwood. Any deeper and you can injure the tree and you won’t collect much sap.
Look Out For Dark Wood
If you get dark brown shavings while drilling, go pick another tree because this one is diseased or dying. The shavings should be very light-colored or white.
Now, clean out the hole with clean water if there are any shavings left, and gently tap in the spile. Attach the bucket and you’re good to go.
If the sap doesn’t immediately start to flow, be patient. You can go tap another tree then come back to check or check again tomorrow. Once the sap is flowing, just make sure to collect it each day because it will net a lot in a short time.
A Few Side Notes About Birch Sap
You can drink the sap right away. Birch sap is considered a health drink in many countries and does contain many vitamins and minerals. Be sure to filter the sap first to remove any debris or impurities that could have fallen into the collection bucket.
Although most sap collecting equipment is now made of stainless steel or plastic, some older equipment may be composed of copper. You shouldn’t use anything copper when collecting birch tree sap. Birch sap is acidic enough to corrode copper.
Make Harvesting Birch Sap A Family Affair
Tapping a birch tree, or any tree for that matter could be a fun activity for everyone in the family. It’s a great lesson for younger kids to teach them about how nature can provide for us, and respect trees and nature even more. Even though it’s still probably a bit chilly out, tapping birch trees is a great outdoor fun project.
Who knows, this undertaking could help them with a school project or essay if they happen to be studying trees or forests.
How Often Can You Tap A Birch Tree?
Maple trees are hardy plants that can endure being tapped nearly every year. Unfortunately, birch trees are a bit more fragile and probably won’t do well if they are tapped year after year.
After A Few Seasons, Give Your Birch Tree A Rest
You only want to drill one hole per year in a birch tree. Don’t worry though because if the tree is large and healthy, you will end up with gallons of sap per tree. You should only tap a birch tree about 3 years in a row, then give the tree a rest.
When drilling a hole for sap the following year, you’ll need to pick another spot. From the original hole, move to the right or left between 4 to 6 inches, and a few inches above. Refrain from drilling completely around the tree, as this is called girdling the tree, and it will not be able to heal itself.
Since birch trees are not as strong as maples, this is just another reason to stay vigilant about equipment cleaning and disinfecting. The trees do heal themselves from the drilled holes, but extra cleanliness won’t hurt at all.
Does Tapping Hurt Birch Trees?
Tapping does not hurt the tree if it is done in moderation, with clean equipment, and handled the right way. Even though birch trees are not as hardy as some other trees, that does not mean they can’t deal with getting tapped. Once you are finished collecting sap from the tree, remove the spile and the tree will soon close the hole itself.
The tree is going through a growth phase after winter, and will often heal a tap hole very quickly. As long as you only drill one hole per sap season, and then give the tree rest for a season or two after up to three taps, the tree will continue to grow and be healthy.
What To Do With Birch Tree Sap
You’ve collected gallons of sap per birch tree, now what can you do with it all? First off you need to figure out what to do with it quickly because birch sap is quite perishable. It will remain fresh for up to 7 days if refrigerated, longer if you freeze it.
According to the USDA Forest Service: Birch sap is becoming commercialized in Alaska where people are using sap and syrup to make candies, salad dressing, marinades, and even ice cream.
Ferment The Birch Sap
If you have the know-how and equipment, birch sap can be fermented into birch wine, birch beer, or even into birch mead.
Birch beer—the non-alcoholic kind that’s similar to root beer—is probably the most prevalent of beverages. Here the sap is processed, essential oils are added as well as carbonation and sugar to make a fizzy, spicy drink that carries flavors of spices, and wintergreen.
Boil Birch Sap Into Syrup
The most popular use for birch sap, after drinking it straight, is cooking it down into syrup. Birch syrup is very different in flavor from maple syrup because of the significantly smaller amount of sugar found in birch sap. Birch syrup is said to have an earthy, almost savory-sweet flavor that goes well on meats, in glazes, and marinades.
It takes remarkably more birch sap to craft syrup compared to maple sap. Where it takes approximately 30-40 gallons of maple sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, it can take 100 to 200 gallons to make a single gallon of birch syrup. With such high water content, and alternately low—and easily burned—sugar content, it can be difficult to make good-tasting birch syrup.
Birch Sap Is Perishable
When the sap does start pouring out of your tap, you’ll need to collect it daily, as the temperatures during this time will be warmer than maple sap season, and because birch sap is more perishable than maple sap. Birch sap will last about 7 days under refrigeration before it starts to ferment. If you are going to use birch sap, do so quickly.
If you don’t have the time to cook the sap promptly or you want to store it longer, you can freeze it, this way it will last a much longer time.
Be careful though, because if you plan on freezing the sap, make sure you have plenty of space. If you tap 5 or 6 trees, you could potentially harvest a gallon of sap per tree, per day, for 3 to 4 weeks. That’s a lot of sap!
Tips For Making Birch Syrup
Birch sap contains glucose and fructose sugars in small amounts. Those types of sugars will burn quickly if heated too high or for too long, leaving you with a caramelized tar-like substance that does not taste good. You’ll have to adopt a low and slow process to make delicious birch syrup.
Birch sap needs to be evaporated slowly to produce the best flavors. Most commercial birch syrup manufacturers use reverse osmosis to create the best syrup. Small birch syrup outfits don’t have access to that kind of equipment because of the hefty price tag, so they have to do it the old-fashioned way.
Boiling birch sap will create a lot of moisture because there is a lot of liquid that needs to be cooked off. Be prepared for this. If you plan on cooking a lot of birch sap, you might want to set up some kind of outside rig, say like a turkey fryer.
Get Out There And Start Tapping
You don’t have to have a lot of expensive equipment or be a big tree tapping operation to start collecting your own healthy birch tree sap. You don’t have to be a survivalist or homesteader either. Anyone can tap birch trees for sap if you know what you’re doing, and when to get started.
If you are interested in creating a home grown birch grove for tapping, check out this troubleshooting article on 4 Reasons Why Birch Trees Can’t Grow In The Shade!
You know, the air is crisp, the trees haven’t started budding quite yet, what are you waiting for? You now know when the best time to tap birch trees is, you know how to collect the sap, and you have several different ways to use the sap. Get out there and tap those birch trees.
Jeong, S.-J., Lee, C.-H., Kim, H.-Y., Lee, S.-H., Hwang, I.-G., Shin, C.-S., … Jeong, H.-S. (2012, January 31). Quality Characteristics of the White Birch Sap with Varying Collection Periods. Journal of the Korean Society of Food Science and Nutrition. The Korean Society of Food Science and Nutrition. https://doi.org/10.3746/jkfn.2012.41.1.143
Trummer, Lori; Malone, Tom. United States Department of Agriculture, US Forest Service Alaska Region, State and Private Forestry Forest Health Protection, Anchorage Office. Some impacts to paper birch trees tapped for sap harvesting in Alaska. 10/02/2022 16:09:22. http://hdl.handle.net/11122/3198
Abby K. Van Den Berg, Mark L. Isselhardt, Timothy D. Perkins. March 2018. Identifying Sustainable Practices for Tapping and Sap Collection from Birch Trees: Optimum Timing of Tapping Initiation and the Volume of Nonconductive Wood Associated with Taphole Wounds