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Why Early Spring is the Sweetest Season for Tapping Sap

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There’s an old saying that asks: do you eat to live, or live to eat?

The long, frosty slog before spring’s first fiddlehead is especially excruciating for those of us who identify with the latter. But there’s an upside to this brutally barren stretch of time, buried deep in the woods of Canada, New England, and Alaska where the fruitful birch tree calls home. In the dark of winter, before buds appear, before the first little tulip points break the retreating snow line, something edible and delicious is – literally – on tap.

When the nights are cold but the daytime sunlight pushes the midday mercury into the 40’s, birch sap begins its annual run. Granted, nobody I know is tapping trees or pounding spiles (the technical name for metal or plastic spouts) into their brownstone backyard white birch, waiting for the ‘plinkity plinkity plink’ of sap dribbling into their tin pail. Come March or April, the day’s temperatures creep above freezing and trees send stored sugar up their trunks and into the branches’ soon-­to-­swell buds.

I have no friends in Anchorage who are sweating over a stove, slowly boiling down that barely flavored, nearly clear sap into think amber goodness. We could, if we really wanted to. But lucky for us locavores, people like Dulce Ben East and her husband Michael East, the co­-founders of Kahiltna Birchworks in Talkeetna, Alaska, do it for us (and we thank them from the bottom of our pancakes!).

Sugaring is photosynthesis used to our human advantage.

In summer, the white birch tree stores sugar in its roots as starch, which come late winter, it converts back to sugar and runs up the tree to bring nutrition to the bulging buds. When sap starts flowing, the sap suckers are ready. Sap waits for no one!

The number of taps varies by tree size, but typically birch tapping harvests about 8% of the tree’s sap. Although taking sap harms the tree no more than giving blood harms a person, sap’s function is not fully understood. What we do know, however, is that sap suckers need happy, healthy white birch trees, good for tapping from age 40 to 200, so they are careful not to over-tap.

Sap suckers gather each stand’s sap where it’s boiled down, a whopping 100 gallons to make a single gallon of syrup. When sap flows hard, sap suckers work right through the night with a short window to work in, only about 20 days in the beginning of April. When that liquid becomes syrup, pushing the sugars up to a thick 67%, you can open a spout off the evaporator and pour off the scorching hot reward of nature’s bounty.

Birch syrup is graded by shade, with darker colors indicating stronger flavors.

At the start of the season, the sap looks, feels, and tastes like water, with just a hint of light sweetness. The “fancy” stuff, lightest in color and with a milder flavor, is Grade A. Sap collected later in the season when the tree buds swell, produce darker syrup with an intense, molasses-like flavor, known as Grade B.

Like the cook who bakes with light olive oil but uses pungent extra-­virgin olive oil in vinaigrette, birch aficionados freely pour light syrup on everyday eats like pancakes while reserving stronger, more robust syrups for pecan pies where flavor must shine. Each year, my pancakes look forward to the day when new Grade A syrup arrives, followed closely by plenty of intense Grade B that goes to work in all my baked goods from now until spring.

Yes, fiddlehead ferns and ramps might be weeks away, but it still seems like a pretty sweet time of the year to me.

Birch syrup goes far beyond pancakes! For a taste of the simple life, check out Gold Pure Organic Alaska Birch Syrup (also included in our Aurora Borealis-themed Gift Box), or try your hand at making our recipe for pan-seared wild salmon with an Asian birch glaze.

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One comment on “Why Early Spring is the Sweetest Season for Tapping Sap

  1. Stephanie Pacillo

    Love this!