How to tap birch trees for drinkable sap

This story was originally published on OFFGRID. Words by Patrick McCarthy.

Learning bushcraft skills serves as a clear reminder that we are surrounded by natural survival tools and resources. We just have to know where to look.

Whether it’s fatwood for fire-starting, pine needles for tea, edible acorns or resin for improvised glue, trees are an excellent source of useful materials.

If you take time to study local tree varieties, you’ll be able to recall some of these potential resources on your next adventure into the woods.

Birch trees are easy to spot if you know what to look for. Photo: Courtesy of MCQBushcraft/OFFGRID

Birch trees are well-known for their flaky multi-layered bark, which resembles paper and is often used for fire-starting and weaving. However, birch trees can provide another valuable resource: sap.

Much like maple trees, birch trees can be tapped for a steady source of delicious and edible liquid sap, also called birch water.

The tapping season for birch trees doesn’t arrive until mid- to late April, or just before the trees begin to sprout buds, but it’s always a good time to learn how to do it.

The birch sap is sweet, but not too sweet. Photo: Courtesy of MCQBushcraft/OFFGRID

While maple sap has a strong sweet flavor, especially when it’s reduced to a syrup consistency, birch sap is only lightly sweet. It is often described as slightly spicy and savory, and appears as a clear liquid. In raw form, 100 grams (3.5 ounces, or about one third of a cup) of birch sap has 4.6 calories and 1.1 grams of sugar. It’s also rich in healthy vitamins (B and C), minerals, antioxidants and amino acids.

Birch trees are known for their flaky bark. Photo: Courtesy of MCQBushcraft/OFFGRID

Birch sap has been consumed as a traditional drink in many countries, including America, Canada, Russia, the Ukraine, Finland and China. The sap can be drunk raw from the tree or fermented naturally into birch beer (typically a nonalcoholic soft drink similar to root beer, although alcoholic versions also exist).

It can also be concentrated into syrup, though this process is difficult due to the large amounts of sap required and its tendency to ferment.

Michael McQuilton shows off the tools he uses to tap birch trees, including a hand drill and bone straw. Photo: Courtesy of MCQBushcraft/OFFGRID

In the following video, Michael McQuilton of MCQBushcraft discusses the advantages of tapping birch trees for sap and shows how it’s done. The trees shown in this video are European silver birch, but the same methods can be used on a variety of birch species, including those found in North America.

It’s also worth mentioning that you should always be considerate with your use of natural resources like birch, since tapping these trees can permanently damage them if it’s done incorrectly or excessively.

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