We were very excited to learn that we can harvest birch syrup right in our literal back yard here in Fairbanks, AK. 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.
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.
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 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.
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. The equipment needed was:
- 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 of which can be used year after year for this purpose. We recommend the aluminum taps as they are stronger and will last longer.
The Birch Tapping Process
We sanitized our equipment and drilled our first hole into a rather large birch tree. We then hammered the tap in with a rubber mallet and hoped to see the tree flowing.
Well, it didn’t quite work that way. But, two days later, we started seeing liquid in our buckets! How exciting…it actually works!
Average birch trees will produce ~1 gallon of birch sap per day for 2-3 weeks after they start running.
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 less than 10 ounces of actual birch syrup.
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
First, we fill our boiling vessel with birch sap, filtered by a fine sieve to catch 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. You can store concentrate more easily than pure birch sap. We aim to get every gallon of raw birch sap down to roughly a pint of concentrate. Depending on how long it might be until we get to phase two, we store this concentrate in the freezer or refrigerator.
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, filtered through fine filters to purify the product as much as possible. We will then boil this concentrate down even further until it becomes actual birch syrup in a consistency that we prefer.
Once this process is completed, we’ll then package our finished birch syrup into sanitized bottles and store it in the freezer 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 attempt, we set off our fire alarms quite frequently, given so much humidity in the air. Even opening our windows to full blast wasn’t enough to remove the humidity fast enough.
We have since moved our syrup production outdoors, using a propane burner. This has significantly eased the process and also made it much faster. While there is a cost to 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 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 out of 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 to our tap that fed into our bucket was greatly beneficial. It helps with keeping debris and bugs out when you’re able to use a lid on the bucket. Aluminum foil is a good material for sealing up any areas that are exposed.
Also, having a larger 5+ gallon boiling pot has been beneficial, given the quantities of liquid that we’re dealing with. We started with 2 gallon pots, but again learned that moving that up (and to a propane burner) was highly beneficial.
You can 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. 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. It’s 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.
We make up a gallon of the sanitizer solution at a time. For this, we use approximately 7 milliliters of Starsan for every gallon of water. We also recommend using distilled water as it will allow the solution to last almost indefinitely. Regular tap water will eventually result in the solution becoming ineffective as the pH will be reduced to ineffective levels.
There are other 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 for a relatively small reward.
That said, it is a fantastic DIY treat that you will appreciate every time you use it.
For larger scales of production, you’re going to require some specialized and specific equipment. I have considered using my brewing equipment for getting to larger scale production in the future, should we desire such a thing.
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 the 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.