As I type this there is a dusting of snow across Somerset with more promised to come our way. Springtime certainly feels a million miles away. Don’t be fooled though. Mother Nature knows best and if you don’t get yourself ready to tap the birch now you’ll mis out on a wonderful, cool drink and a fresh, natural ingredient for beer, wine and syrup. There is nothing better than fresh birch sap.
What do I need to collect the sap?
The first step to tapping a birch tree is to obtain permission from the landowner. Next is a birch that is no less than 18″ or 46cm in diameter. This will allow you to take a couple of litres without harming the tree. I use an old brace with an auger to drill in to the tree. I make my own spiles to tap in to the hole. These are available in our online shop. You will also need a receptacle to catch the birch sap as it drips from the spile. This can be a plastic bottle with a hole cutout near to the top but I use a billycan as you will see in the photos. I also take a saw to create the plug and to trim it off, an axe to tap the spile and plug into place and a full tang knife.
Look for the signs
Half the fun of tapping the birch for its sap is looking out for when the sap is actually up. The usual convention suggests it is at the end of February and the beginning of March and can last for 3 – 4 weeks. Micro climates can mess with this so you have to get your boots on the ground.
Start by getting out in to the woods on a lovely sunny day because if the sap is running it travels faster on a sunny day. Go to where the intended harvest trees are growing. You need to see what is happening where the trees actually grow. Look at the woodland floor and see what fauna is starting to emerge. Can you see lesser celandine or the very young shoots of ramsons? Closely inspect the branches of a hazel if there is one growing near by. (I’m really lucky as both trees share the woods where I go.) Are there tiny red flowers that look like sea anenome growing on the buds? Finally look at the buds of each different birch tree. If they look like they are swollen and ready to split then you can put your test tap into the tree.
This is done by placing your full tang knife’s point on to the south facing side of the tree. Use a full tang as a folding knife could collapse and give you a nasty cut. Angle it at about 90 degrees and strike the foot of the handle with the heel of your hand. If the sap is running a clear droplet will form on the tip of the knife. If it is cloudy the sap could be contaminated by grubby bark. Clean the bark with the sap and look again. It should run clear. If it has an orange haze to it you have either drilled too shallow and the sap is picking up the tannins from the bark or you have missed the run and the sap is slowing down. If it is the latter smooth over the small hole and move to the next tree.
Start to drill
Using your bit and brace place the nose of the bit onto the hole your knife made as to make another one is simply cruel and unthinking. The angle doesn’t need to be as steep, just enough to encourage gravity to help the sap on its way down the spile. The depth always depends on the thickness of the bark. You are aiming to enter the sapwood and have enough depth for the spile to have decent purchase.
Grab your spile and making sure it is clean and the hole on the face is at “6 o’clock” gently tap the spile in to place with your axe and hang your receptacle. Cover it and go for a nice stroll, cut wood or simple sit and be. Either way leave the birch sap running for at least twenty minutes if you only want to have a good drink. If you are making wine leave for at least twenty-four hours.
Collecting birch sap and making good
So, these days, I only collect enough for my family and I to have a good drink of the sap, a Spring ritual if you like. If you are collecting larger quantities use a larger vessel to pour your collected sap into. Remember to use it quickly as it goes off as quickly as milk does. Once you’ve decide to finish collecting it is now your absolute responsibility to make good the hole you have created. If you don’t the tree will either die or be infected. Both are obviously terrible and will be your fault.
There are lots of ways out there that plug the hole well so feel free to look them up or utilise them. The method I have been using for nearly twenty years is making a plug from a slightly larger piece of hazel. Identify a piece that will suit your needs and either sympathetically trim the rod or take it off as if you were coppicing the rod. Measure a piece that is slightly too long for your needs and strip the hazel’s bark so you don’t introduce any bacteria in to the birch.
Cut the stripped piece and create a chamfer on the end you will be striking with the poll of the axe. place the hazel into the hole and tap it in until it won’t go any further. At this point you may see bubbles coming out of the hazel. Don’t worry about this as it is the pressure pushing out the sap of the hazel. Once the plug is secure trim it off with the saw and thank the tree. After all, it has given up its sap just for you. Don’t tap it again for another three years so it has plenty of time to recover.
Whilst waiting for your sap to collect you could also utilise the birch’s bark as a future fire starter. Simply look at the tree’s bark and if you see any wispy bark shedding peel it off. Within no time at all you will have a handful of wonderful tinder. The birch, what an amazing tree.
So, get out there and enjoy the very beginning of the edible harvest Mother Nature has to offer you. My great friend Simon told me that if the word pure had a taste, it would taste of birch sap. Well I couldn’t agree more. It is a pure elixir.