Birch Syrup Harvesting Within Interior Alaska

We were very excited to learn that we can harvest birch syrup right in our literal back yard here in Fairbanks, AK.

With only 1,500 gallons of birch syrup produced world-over annually, this seemed to be a very special thing that we could do up here in Interior Alaska that is unique to the area.

Birch syrup harvesting in our back yard!

With several dozen birch trees within a few yards of our house, we definitely wanted to get into it to see what it was all about.

Fortunately, yet again, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Extension Service were several steps ahead of us and provided all the information we needed to get started in backyard birch syrup harvesting.

When To Tap Birch & Needed Equipment

Mid-April is the season to get the good stuff, right about when temperatures first start warming up to about 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

You can also watch the buds of the birch trees.  You want to start before leaves emerge and after the buds form on the trees.

On average, you have about a 14 to 21 day window where the trees will produce sap.  It is a somewhat time sensitive process due to this production window.

There is a little bit of specialized equipment that you need for birch syrup tapping.  The basics of equipment you will need are:

  • 2, 3 or 5 gallon buckets
  • Taps (found at local seed stores)
  • 7/16″ or 5/16 drill bit, depending on tap size

We purchased five birch taps and five two gallon buckets with lids at the local feed store, so there was a minimal buy-in to get started.

The aluminum taps cost around $7 each and the buckets with lids cost around $6 each.

Both types can be used year after year for this purpose, but aluminum taps are more robust.  We recommend the aluminum taps as they are stronger and will last longer.

The Birch Tapping Process

Once we had our equipment, the next step is to drill our first hole into a rather large birch tree.  From there, we hammered the tap in with a rubber mallet and hoped to see the tree flowing.

Well, it didn’t quite work out that way.  Nothing happened.  We hung the bucket on the tap and waited.

Two days later, we started seeing liquid in our buckets!

How exciting…it actually works!

Birch tap in operationAverage sized birch trees will produce one to two gallons of birch sap per day for the 2-3 weeks that they are producing birch sap.

After a certain point, the birch sap becomes more bitter and doesn’t produce good syrup, so timing your birch tapping correctly is of the essence!

What It Takes To Make Birch Syrup

The “hard part” of birch syrup production comes with making the actual syrup.

Birch syrup production requires around a 100 to 1 reduction through boiling in order to become actual syrup.

This means that 10 gallons of raw birch sap will produce only around 10 ounces of actual birch syrup.

If you are familiar with maple syrup production, this will strike you as significantly more intensive than maple syrup production.

The most common method of achieving this reduction is through the process of boiling.

Birch sap is perishable and must be stored in the freezer or refrigerator in order to prevent it from spoiling.

For us, storing many gallons of birch sap in cool conditions is a near impossibility.  Thus, we decided to go about the sap reduction in two separate phases.

Processing Birch Sap Into Syrup

For the first phase, we try to get a concentrate that is more easily stored.  Instead of having to store many gallons, we want to store much less.  You can store birch sap concentrate more easily than pure birch sap.

First, we fill our boiling vessel with raw birch sap, filtered by a fine sieve to catch any debris.  We turn the heat to high and bring the birch sap to a boil.

We are performing a basic reduction where you boil the liquid to the point where it is a concentrate.

In this process, we aim to get every gallon of raw birch sap down to roughly a pint of concentrate.

As you might imagine, this process can take a long time.  You can expect many, many hours of boiling your birch sap to get it into a concentrate.

Once we get our concentrate, we store it in the freezer or refrigerator depending on how long it will be until we finish the processing.

Boiling down birch sap on our stove

Boiling birch sap into birch syrup is a somewhat time consuming process that requires a lot of time boiling down.  Expect a lot of steam, too!

The second phase comes once we’ve collected all our raw birch sap for the season and have all of it reduced into concentrate.

We will then combine all the concentrate for the season into our boiling vessel.  We will then boil this concentrate down even further until it becomes actual birch syrup in a consistency that we prefer.

Figuring out when the syrup is actually done is really up to you.  You’re not expecting a “thick” syrup.  Home made birch syrup tends to be a bit lighter in consistency than other syrups out there.

Once this process is completed, we’ll then package our finished birch syrup into sanitized bottles and store it in the freezer or refrigerator for long term use over the year.

A Word Of Warning About Processing Syrup Indoors

One thing we didn’t quite predict was how much moisture this process would create.  We initially did our reduction processes on our home stove.  This turned out not to be the best of ideas.

In our first birch syrup attempt, we accidentally set off our fire alarms quite frequently.  As it turns out, many fire alarms can inadvertently detect high levels of humidity as smoke.

Even opening our windows and running fans on full blast wasn’t enough to remove the humidity fast enough.

We have since moved our syrup production outdoors, using a propane burner.

This change has also significantly eased the process and also made it much faster.

While there is a cost for propane, there was also a cost to running the stove for many hours over the day.

Learning The Details Of Making Birch Syrup

We initially started with two gallon buckets for our birch sap collection.  Since the original publication of this post, we have upgraded our setup to use five gallon buckets.

We learned that the trees produce sap very quickly during certain periods of time.  We were losing sap because we couldn’t empty the buckets fast enough.

Moving to five gallon buckets allowed us a bit more time and overall reduced the labor demands quite a bit.  It was better to collect 3 gallons in a 5 gallon bucket than it was to lose a gallon of sap to the ground.

We also found that using a plastic tube connected between our tap and bucket was greatly beneficial.

This photo shows our current birch tapping practice.  The minor changes we discuss in this section really went a long way to improve the process for us.

This helps with keeping debris and bugs out because you’re able to use a lid on the bucket.  We also no longer have to hang the bucket on the tree, which we are suspect reduces stress on the tree.

We started with a 2 gallon pot as our boiling vessel, but found this really increased the time involved by a lot.  Having a larger 5 gallon boiling pot has been beneficial, given the quantities of liquid that we’re dealing with.

Again, we learned that moving that up (and to a propane burner) was highly beneficial.

You can also double tap larger birch trees, typically those greater than 14 inches in diameter.  This can help with reducing your labor efforts.  Especially when it reduces the number of places you have to stomp through the snow to get to.

Notes About Birch Syrup Sanitation

While it’s not commonly stated that food safety is a factor in birch syrup production, we know that is.

It’s a good idea to sanitize anything that will touch either birch sap or birch syrup.  Especially once the boiling processes are fully completed.

This will help reduce your exposure to problems with spoilage and also other bad things that can occur.

Cleaning and sanitation are two different things.  Cleaning is simply the process of making something clean.  Sanitation, however, is about killing unseen bacteria and other bad critters from your equipment.

We like to use a product called Starsan.  It’s a commonly available sanitizer used in home-brewing and professional brewing applications.

Starsan is a great sanitizer because it’s no-rinse when used in the appropriate concentrations.  We like to put this in a spray bottle that can then be applied to anything we need to sanitize quite easily.

There are other sanitation techniques you can use such as bleach solutions, but these are definitely NOT no-rinse!  You can also boil equipment for 15 minutes, however, this doesn’t work for plastic, like your buckets.

Small Scale Birch Production Is Totally Doable!

Small scale birch syrup production is easily done in the home. Although it is somewhat time intensive, it has become a very rewarding hobby for us.

Birch syrup is a fantastic DIY treat that you will appreciate every time you use it.

For larger scales of production, you might require some specialized and specific equipment.  I have considered using my home brewing equipment for getting to larger scale production in the future, should we desire such a thing.

The home brewery has an application in birch syrup production

We have also heard that some larger production houses use dedicated reverse osmosis systems in their production process.  This is obviously a bit beyond the scope of this post, but we wanted to mention it to any reader that is looking to take that next step.

We are so excited to embrace this “living off the land” culture.  It truly is amazing that the harsh climate of interior Alaska offers so much opportunity to those that choose to pursue it.

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