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The first harvest of the season

Spring is here. In the last two weeks I’ve seen the snowdrops and the crocuses bloom. Spring is here. But don’t look outside. Forgot the newly-fallen snow. This is New England. Late snow fall is unwelcome, though not unusual. But in no case will it stop the season’s first harvest.

Harvest?! What can one harvest in early April? Birch sap, my friends, Birch sap. The nectar of the gods. (Well, the sap of the gods at the very least). This is the only good reason to put one’s boots on and tromp around the woods this time of year. The goal, as you might imagine, is to make birch sap wine. Here is how it is done.

First, find yourself a birch tree. I used a white (paper) birch. The paper birch doesn’t have the highest sugar content, but will do. Black and yellow birches would be preferred, if you have them. You want a big birch tree, not some little twig of a tree. Bigger means more sap with less stress to the tree.

Second, plan to start collecting sap right around this time, earliest spring, when the sap rises from the roots. If you try too early you’ll get nothing, and if you wait for the warmer weather, the sap gets cloudy. So there is a 2-week window, right around early April here in Massachusetts, that is perfect.

Next you need some basic equipment:

  • A drill. I used a cordless electric drill.
  • A spile. This is the spigot you tap the tree with. You can make one yourself, or purchase online. Search EBay and you’ll find a variety. The ones used for maple syrup work just fine for birch.
  • A rubber mallet. This is used for tapping in the spile without breaking it.
  • Some food grade plastic tubing and a collection jug. I reused some brewing supplies for this, including a 5-gallon jug to collect the sap in.

Since my birch tree was 100-yards down a hill in the woods, by a stream, I packed the equipment into a sack and carried the jug down the hill. The rest is easy. Drill a hole with a 5/16″ bit, around 3-feet off the ground, angled slightly up. It doesn’t need to be deep, only an inch or so. Then tap in the stile with the mallet, connect the rubber tubing and so it drains into the jug. I ended up securing my jug to the tree with rope. I don’t know why. Just habit. I don’t think there is anything in those woods big enough to walk away with 5-gallons of birch sap, but too dumb to cut a rope.

The sap collects around a half-gallon a day. Since the temperatures were low, I didn’t worry too much about spontaneous fermentation from wild yeast, though I did add some campden tablets every day or so as insurance, to keep it sterile.

After around five days my jug was full. Time to return it home. This was the weakness of my plan. Bringing a 5-gallon jug full of birch sap 100-yards uphill through dense brush was a significantly greater task than bringing the empty jug down the hill. I’ll need to think this over more next time.

Once in the kitchen, I did some testing, confirming the sugar level with a hydrometer and refractometer. The sap was only around 1.5% sugar. This is about what I expected. Commercial birch syrup producers say it takes 80 gallons of birch sap to make 1 gallon of birch syrup. I don’t need something that concentrated, but I do need to get to 20% sugar content or so for fermentation.

So what was the character of my raw ingredients? I’d describe it as having a sweet, warming, earthy smell, with a hint of wintergreen. My wife simply said, “It smells like dirt”. De gustibus non disputandum, especially with one’s uxor. I’ll see what the winemaker’s art can do to this unusual liquid.

I transfer the sap into a 6-gallon brew pot and start it boiling for most of an afternoon. Evaporation concentrates the sugar and the flavor. Once I got it down to gallon, I added a few sprigs of fresh spearmint for a little accent flavor and to restore some of the aroma that was lost from the long boil.

At that point I cooled the sap, remeasured the sugar content and added cane sugar to bring it up to a specific gravity of 1.085. This should result in an alcohol percentage of around 11% if it ferments dry. I also added some citric acid to put the pH where I want it (I could have added orange juice instead if I wanted) and then added the yeast. I’m using Lavlin V1116 “Montpellier” yeast, a strain which I’ve used successfully with fruit wines before.

The birch sap wine is fermenting now. If a few days I’ll transfer to a carboy for clarification and in a few months I’ll bottle it and set it sit another 6 months or so for conditioning. I have never done a birch sap wine before so I have no idea how this will turn out.

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  • Anonymous 2007/04/05, 9:51 pm

    I suppose one of the primary qualifications for wine making is the ability to practice delayed gratification.

    Richard Chapman

  • Anonymous 2007/04/06, 2:30 pm

    If it smelled like wintergreen, why not add wintergreen to it, too?

    (Disclaimer: I know absolutely nothing about wine.)

  • Rob 2007/04/06, 3:57 pm

    If I had wintergreen on hand, I probably would have used it. But I didn’t have any. But I do have a hydroponic herb garden in the kitchen, with basil, cilantro, chives, parsley and spearmint. So I went with the mint. We’ll see how it goes. Next to the tomato wine I made last fall this is the oddest thing I’ve ever brewed.

    As for delayed gratification, that is part of it. The other big part is sanitation. I’m dealing with gallons of what to microbes must looks like ideal breeding grounds: warm sugar water. So keeping everything sterile until I introduce the desired yeast strain, ensuring that I get wine, and not vinegar or worse.

  • Anonymous 2007/11/05, 5:44 am

    well, I started my birch sap wine on Apr, 20/07 ..Here in Manitoba Canada…finished Bottling on Oct.29/07.
    I am puzzled on you boiling 6 gallons until you got what..?one gallon?….Everything sounds right except that…Sanitation is everything..please comment..

  • Rob 2007/11/05, 7:38 am

    Hi Jim,

    I boiled 5 gallons down to 1.5 gallons. This was based on my original refractometer measurements that showed that the raw sap was only 1.5% sugar.

    The risk of course is that I’ve boiled off most of the aromatic compounds. We’ll see.


  • Anonymous 2007/11/05, 2:19 pm

    okay…that’s what I thought you did…..so you are only carbo-ing one point five gallons….? That should only make 4-5 bottles?

    Can I ask why you wouldn’t just add natural sugar, say sugar cane, and salvage the whole 5 gallons for the sap wine.? I did exactly as you have done…except for boiling off 4 gallons of sap…help me understand why you went that direction.

  • Rob 2007/11/05, 2:34 pm

    I could have done that, but I was trying to get a stronger flavor. My raw sap was not that strong, so some concentration seemed like a good idea.

    I’m aiming for a sweet, desert wine style in the end. So I want the stronger flavor. I haven’t bottled yet, but when I get around to it, I’ll first stabilize with potassium sorbate and sweeten to taste.

    I’ve never done a birch wine before, so I’m not sure how this will balance out. But the way you’re doing it sounds reasonable as well. You’ll probably end up with a drier, more subtle wine.

  • Anonymous 2007/11/05, 4:19 pm

    Well Rob…thks for your reply. Since you haven’t any comments since last Apri. I am sure you do not mind this dialogue.

    Can I ask how many times you have transfered the 1.5. gal so far. With the birch you boiled down to. Can I ask if you started with 6 gallons of tomatoe juice or stock and boiled down the “liquid”
    to 1.5 gals to recover the “sugar” content to make your tomatoe wine?

    How did your tomatoe wine turn out.? How many lbs did you use? or did you tap each tomatoe with a spigot and drain into a container? How much tomatoe juice did you recover, or did you use the tomatoe itself, squashed it? or did you use tomatoe right from the can at the market?

    Serously, now…how did you do the tomatoe wine? Where did you get the idea to use birch sap as a wine. Where did you get the birch receipt.?

  • Rob 2007/11/05, 5:43 pm

    For the birch wine, I fermented in a plastic fermentor and than transferred to glass carboy for secondary. When the yeast eventually settled out I transferred once more, and it has been sitting there for a few months. There wasn’t a lot that fell out, but I didn’t want any off flavors from yeast autolysis, so I thought it safer to rack to another carboy for the longer aging.

    For the tomato wine I started with this recipe from Jack Keller.

    I used 4 lbs of fresh tomatoes from my garden, a mix of heirloom varieties, some red ripe, while some still green. I cut the tomatoes into chunks, removed the stems but left the skins and seeds. Since I was not going to do a hard boil of the tomatoes I had to kill any wild yeast or bacteria with crushed Campden tablets. I then simmered for 30 minutes to help extract more juice (not sure if this is necessary), cooled and pitched the yeast. I used Lalvin EC-1118 (Champagne) for its neutral flavor contribution and temperature tolerance.

    Even though I did not boil, it still developed a haze, but this precipitated out after adding finings (isinglass).

    This was another 1 gallon experimental batch. O.G. was 1.082 and final gravity was 0.992, for predicted ABV=11.8%, which was close to my target of 12%.

    In any case, I’m convinced that you can make wine of almost any fruit or vegetable. It just needs to have reasonable sugar content. All the recipies are basically the same, adding enough fruit / table sugar to make a target gravity of 1.085 or so and then fermenting with a flavor-neutral yeast. Depending on how acidic the fruit is you may need to add some acid blend. The only batch that ever totally failed on me was an herbal blend that just would not ferment. It ended up that one of the herbs had a natural antiseptic quality that was holding the yeast back.

    An excellent book I think is Terry Garey’s “The Joy of Home Winemaking” which deals almost entirely with fruit and herbal wines.

    So how does your birch wine taste so far? Have you made any other kinds? If you are up North, another book to consider is “The Alaskan Bootleggers Bible” by Leon Kania. There is some good coverage there of wines based on local ingredients.

  • Anonymous 2007/11/05, 6:12 pm

    Rob…thks. Your definitely in the category of “knowing” what your talking about…thks for the feedback and info.

    I understand your reason now, for the l gal. trials…Have you ever used Gelatine to settle out your wines….? It worked well for my batch. I bottled 26…after 6 months of sitting and transfers. Very clear…and I think better than the TANSI, that they have just started marketing around the world from Barkers Narrows Manitoba Canada….Get a bottle, and try it…It is very similiar to my stuff…..
    This was my first go…and next year I will be going after rubbard..we have plenty in the garden…we also have plenty of dandilion in the spring…I am glad you saw past my sense of humour…thks.

    I have opened a bottle this last Sat..night. It was the last bottle that I filled from the bottom of the carboy…I racked 4 times….man is this some good wine..

    If you go to my hot mail address, I have posted a bottle there..for viewing…kentuckyfriedduckguy@hotmail.com

    take care, please ignore the sp. errors.


  • Jesse 2010/03/28, 9:04 pm

    Hello- wondering if I can use Hanna’s HI 96801 refractometer for birch sap related activities or if I need a fructose refractometer? I thought the model above (which I ordered and have) measured all sugars in a solution. Now I get it in the mail and it says “for Sucrose Measurements”.

    This is all very exciting, as I just tapped 15 sweet birches today for my first tree tapping venture ever! Thanks.

  • Mark 2010/09/07, 11:12 pm

    How has your Birch wine making worked out Jesse?