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Sap-solute Magic!

Collecting sap
'If magic is to be found you will find it in the woods, you'll find it in the trees'

The name Birch is derived from the ancient Sanskrit word 'bhurga' which roughly translated means, 'tree whos bark is used to write upon' - a reference to it's use as a paper resource. This is just one of the many attributes of this common, very useful and delightful tree.

Birch are extremely common in northern temperate regions of the world. In and around Leeds birch can be found in pretty much all the woodlands, yet until this year (2015), I'd all but ignored this tree but for the beauty it lends itself to our parks, woodlands and wildlife. After reading posts and articles about 'birch sap', I felt that it was time to acquaint myself with this practice. So it was, early in March, I set about testing whether the 'sap was rising' or not. I headed to a local woodland and after locating a healthy tree and after seeking permission, I 'tapped' into it using my penknife, I prised open a small cavity and within seconds one clear droplet of sap appeared and, given info I had read, estimated that it would be at least several days before the sap flow increased enough to guarantee a good harvest. In the meantime, I invested in a drill, string, tubing and buckets/bottles. Approximately 10 days after my initial test I located some trees close to my house, drilled into one and to my joy, the sap flowed very generously, I then proceeded to tap three other trees in close proximity but not neighbouring each other and returned home anticipating tomorrows findings. On returning next morning all bottles had small quantities of sap but weren't full, I was puzzled, I removed the tube from one tree and it released a 'gasp' and 'pffut' of air - I hadn't allowed for pressure building in the bottles - all part of the learning curve - I put an extra small hole in each of the bottles lids I returned that evening and all but one bottle were full to the brim, fab!

Sap Tapping

Plugging the hole
Birch, as with other trees, is a living organism, it breathes, responds to external & internal stimuli, feeds and grows and is intelligent (some may struggle to comprehend this but it's a natural fact). They are not so dissimilar to humans and due respect is essential when out gathering birch sap, an integral aspect of the trees life force (think of it as blood in humans). Prior to tapping, permission from the tree itself, is required; this may seem absurd to some but how would you feel if someone just began taking your blood without your permission, you wouldn't be best pleased would you? Make only one entry site into the tree and tap a tree that has a circumference of at least 9" or 22cm. A quantity of no more than 4.5litres from any one tree is recommended however, last year, I tapped only 4 trees and only those 4 trees and gathered more then the 4.5L recommended from each of them; why did I do this? I did this based on conversations I had with other sap tappers and after much thinking and that thinking concluded in a 'that makes sense' and I'll explain that next. taking 4.5L from say 20 trees provides 90L of sap, that in turn would produce 900ml of syrup, a decent quantity. Each tree could, in theory,  be at the random mercy of infection after tapping (to date no tree I have tapped has shown any sign of infection but it could happen and obviously I wouldn't wish that) and in the case of those 20 trees, that could mean the eventual demise of 20 trees. If I tap 4 trees and leave the tapping instruments in place all throughout the 'sap flowing' period I would end up with more than 90L which is great and I hope not greedy; I don't think this is as none of the sap goes to waste. I use a 10mm circumference tube inserted into the drill hole, a tree of 22cm is a circumference of 220mm, therefore I'm only tapping into approx 2.5% of the trees overall total circumference percentage, that equates in my mind to a very minute percentage and I figure that is respectful and fair and only 4 trees instead of 20 that could potentially fall victim to infection; I'm not saying I don't care if 4 tress potentially die, of course that concerns me and given that birch trees have their own ways of dealing with potential pathogens (ie anti-bacterial compounds) by way of their very nature then I believe the risk is very low indeed if not totally negated by the tree itself; I think a more detailed investigation and article covering this may be required. Should you 'plug' the hole after extracting sap? There is some debate about this and from my online searching, there is no scientifically accurate data to support either side of this debate, it's all based on personal experiences and my personal experiences so far are that no trees I tapped have become infected by either plugging or not plugging. - I'll let you and the tree decide. If you do plug afterwards ensure that the piece of wood you use is sterile and clean, ensure a tight fit, in fact you could plug with chaga dowels. In 2015 I plugged some trees and left others unplugged, this is part of an experiment to monitor and record the results and to date (2018), no trees have suffered with bacterial infection. Collect your sap every 24 - 48 hours and ensure to use the sap asap or freeze it, it can spoil very quickly (3 days in warm temperatures) and that's a real waste for the Birch tree itself and a waste of your time and energy.

So what have I done with that sap besides drinking it fresh & using it to heal bramble scratches (collecting birch sap in the middle of the night without a torch has it's hazards!).



    Birch Sap Wine                                                                                     
 Birch Sap Wine. 3 different types (a 4th is on the go)
I love making and drinking home brews - I'm also partial to supping others' home brews too (invites warmly and graciously received!). I find a deep sense of satisfaction and connection to the many gentle and practical facets of home brewing; locating and gathering the necessary wild ingredients, visiting the home brew shop for supplies and having a good natter, starting the brew, watching and listening for the fermentation to take place, the racking and bottling processes and of course the grand finale (or more appropriately, the grand opening) of a nicely matured bottle! Admittedly, this is the first time I've used any tree sap in place of tap water for wine making and for me, there's an added magical element to brewing with birch sap, unlike with tap water,  I've made many a wine using tap water and find the process of attaining it, more a functional necessity (albeit a valued one), yet it's a function devoid of any wild, romantic, spiritual, pleasurable and connective processes. Yes, the water has journeyed, it has evaporated, condensed, formed clouds, crossed the oceans, fallen earth bound, filtered through soil and rock, though nowadays most, if not all of the water 'on tap' has journeyed further through our sewers than from elsewhere  prior to making it's way to our taps but it has been undeniably interfered with and treated with chemicals in order to render it 'safe' & 'clean' for 'human consumption'. Sap too, has gone through a process of journeying prior to collection but one which in my mind is far more natural and organic, this liquid has been filtered through organic matter, absorbed by tree roots, stored by them for a period of time and then slowly, as the tree awakens from it's winter slumber, is drawn up the tubes of said tree and by said tree (clever stuff!). Birch trees are also known for their antiseptic/antibacterial qualities and birch sap is reportedly imbued with these very same properties.especially as it has avoided any 'human interference' stage. Now some claim there's no definitive distinction to the final products taste whether brewed with ordinary tap water or birch sap and despite having never sampled a 'sap brewed beverage' before, I'm not really in a position to claim otherwise, yet I find myself claiming otherwise, if only on the strength of the journeying and collection process - the mind is a mighty force!

The three pictured wines (above) are all made using 4.5l of birch sap. To each I have added either natural golden granulated sugar, demerara sugar or honey (more a mead than a wine), various wild herbs including elderflower & sweet woodruff and also, lemon/orange juice/zest, raisins and specific yeasts purchased from http://www.abbeyhomebrew.co.uk/.

Basic Birch Sap Wine Recipe

4.5l Fresh Birch Sap
Zest & Juice of 2 Organic Lemons
Zest & Juice of 1 Organic Orange
1kg Organic Golden Granulated Sugar
500g Organic Sultanas or Raisins
Yeast nutrient or 250ml of White Grape Juice Concentrate
1 Sachet High Alcohol Country Wine Yeast or other of your preference

Bring the Birch sap to 75C & keep at this temperature for 20 minutes. Pour onto sugar, sultanas/raisins & zest of the citrus fruits, which by now should be in a brewing bucket, stir to dissolve sugar and leave to cool. Once cooled add the juice of the citrus fruits, yeast, grape juice concentrate or nutrient* (*follow instructions on packet).
Cover with tightly fitting muslin cloth and keep in a warm room (approx 21 Degrees Celsius) for 5 days. After 5 days strain the contents through clean, double layered muslin cloth into a demi-john, place airlock on top, and leave it to do it's thing - ferment -  for approx 2-3 months.
After 2-3 months rack-off the wine into another clean, sterilised demi-john & leave for approx 6 more months, after this time if it hasn't cleared, put it somewhere colder like a cellar or outhouse (just don't let it freeze), this will help it clear. Once cleared siphon into clean sterilised bottles, cork and store until required. This wine is perfect for using as a base for making Wild Foraged Vermouth: http://edible-leeds.blogspot.co.uk/p/alcoholic.html



Melomel

Wild Flowers & Magic Wands awaiting the cooled sap
A Melomel is basically a Mead but because it contains fruit (in this case some Vodka Damsons I
recycled after making, erm, Damson Vodka) it moves categories. I suppose it's more a cross between a Mead & a Wine. The results were fantastic and my friend, the master of mead, Andrew McFarlane gave it the thumbs up after sampling it when staying over at mine on his way to Edinburgh in early December 2015. What you decide to pop into yours really is entirely up to you. I used Birch Sap I collected earlier in the year and I'd frozen for later use.



Wild Yeast only Melomel Recipe:

4.5l Birch Sap (filtered through muslin cloth to remove debris)
Pink Elderflower (pick fresh on a hot dry sunny afternoon)
White Elderflower (pick fresh on a hot dry sunny afternoon)
Ox-Eye Daisy Flowers & Leaves (pick fresh on a hot sunny afternoon)
Vodka Soaked Damsons (added once fermentation starts)
1.5lb Raw Unpasteurised Honey (I used Heather Honey)
Magic Wands (Heather Sticks) http://edible-leeds.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/experiments-adventures-in-mead-making.html

Bring the birch sap to 75C, retain that temperature for 20 mins & then remove from heat and leave to cool. Place all ingredients, except the Damsons, into a fermentation bucket and pour the cooled birch sap onto them. Stir vigorously to dissolve the honey and cover with tightly fitting muslin cloth. It's very important that you keep this at an even temperature of at least 19-21C and at least 3 times a day you stir the mixture vigorously, in a cyclonic action, to draw oxygen & wild yeasts into the mix and prevent it from stagnating. Fermentation will be slow to start, up to 3/5 days but be patient it will work. Part of the reason for the slow fermentation is because no cultured yeasts have been added, only wild yeasts from the flowers, heather sticks and those present in the air are being utilised. Once fermentation has started proper (foam & bubbles will appear and you'll hear it fizzing when you stir), add the fruit, and after a period of about 7-10 days has elapsed transfer the liquid to a demi-john to continue/finish fermenting. The whole fermentation process should take approx 8 weeks (that is an approx time frame for brews containing honey) after which time the brew can be drunk but I'd highly recommend you leave it to mature for at least a year - age improves! If you have no magic wands, or prefer to use a cultured yeast, a Champagne Yeast is ideal.



Birch Syrup in varying concentrations. A true delight!
Birch Sap Syrup

For me, the only 'negative' to this process is the ridiculous energy expenditure. Birch sap contains on average a 2% - 7% sugar content, not a vast quantity. Sap to syrup ratio is reportedly between 80:1 to 120:1. If we base our average on a ratio of 100:1, that would basically mean for every 100 litres of sap you reduce, a 1 litre quantity of syrup will be produced, ouch! I'm currently looking into ways to capture the evaporated moisture content and will hopefully put that it into practice next year, I'm even thinking of reducing the sap over an open fire outdoors. On the positive side, producing your own syrup from sap is extremely rewarding, pleasurable and satisfying. Varying strengths can be attained depending on how much your sap is reduced by and the outcomes are all great. Lighter (less reduced) syrups exhibit a mild caramel sweetness, with gentle woody undertones. Darker (more reduced) syrups exhibit a deeper more complex quality, with sweetness akin to dark molasses sugar & bonfire toffee, more profound smoky undertones and a slight bitterness. Whichever reduction you opt for they will all taste sap-solutely sublime.

Uses of Birch Syrup:

Tricky this... I love sipping it neat from the bottle, that way I really get to savour & enjoy its stunning simplicities & complexities. On the other hand, if you get the combinations right, Birch Syrup is divine drizzled on rich quality vanilla ice-cream. Use it to poach Pears for a Pear & Frangipane Tart (recipe coming soon) and then use that very same syrup to make ice-cream (it's the best ice-cream ever!), Birch Syrup Ice-Cream Recipe: http://edible-leeds.blogspot.co.uk/p/recipes-desserts-and-sweet-things.html.
Syrup can be added to Wild Boozy Cocktails, check this one from Mark: http://www.gallowaywildfoods.com/?page_id=1764.
It can be made into Birch Balsamic Vinegar, lovely recipe from Fergus the Forager: http://fergustheforager.co.uk/2013/03/tapping-birch-collecting-birch-sap-for-mineral-water-wine-beer-vinegar-and-syrup/.

Health Benefits

Birch sap is rich in bio-available nutrients including enzymes, Vit C, Zinc, Sodium, Phosphorus, Calcium, Magnesium, Manganese, Potasssium, Iron, fruit acids & amino acids. I will, as time goes by, add more to this article.






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