A spoonful of sugar

birchsyrupimageAs part of my ‘Year in Provisions’ project–which isn’t really a year long gig at all but rather a complete change in life-style and way of being in the world–I have wanted to extract myself from the dependency of store-bought sugar. One way of doing this would be to get bees (which is on my wish list and my list of things to do!) The other way, and the more traditional in my part of the world, is to tap trees, extract their sweet sap and render it down into a sweet, tasty syrup.

The kind of spile that was lent to me by a local man.

The kind of spile that was lent to me by a local man.

This year I  managed (finally) to get organized enough before the trees were out in leaf, and it was all too late. What spurred me in to action this year was the two weeks of really warm weather we experienced at the end of February. I suddenly felt behind in everything during those ten or so days and realized that if I wanted to give tree tapping a try, I’d better get moving. Luckily it got much colder again (luckily?… did I actually say that out loud) and the trees have remained in their hibernation state.

Traditional tapping, first cut through bark with a knife.

Traditional tapping, first cut through bark with a knife.

Last week I found a local man who has experimented over the years with both maple and birch syrup making. Not only was he kind enough to tell me about his experiments and provide advice, but he also  lent me 10 spiles (the official thingys you tap the trees with) and ten ice cream buckets to catch the sap in. Not wanting to inadvertently poison myself,  when he dropped off the tools I showed him what I thought were my Douglas maple trees. I needed the verification because locally they are called ‘Vine Maples’ and not being a woodsman, I really wasn’t sure if I was on the right track or not.

He assured me they are indeed a Douglas Maple and that they are repudiated to be one of the best sugar maples in terms of flavour. Such good producers, he’s stopped tapping the birch trees altogether and is now focussing on just the Maples. He told me excitedly he’s found a few Norway Maples and he is going to experiment with that type this year.

Traditional tapping with live branch from parent tree.

Traditional tapping with live branch from parent tree.

Yesterday, I tapped the three maples on my property and seven of the birches. I have found  through internet research that you can mixed the two saps and form a uniquely flavoured syrup. The maple provides a better conversion of sap to syrup than the birch (40 to 1 versus 80-100 to 1). So the blending of the two saps should make the rendering process less time consuming than straight birch sap–or so my theory goes!

Birch tree tapped with its own branch and bucket ready to collect the sap.

Birch tree tapped with its own branch and bucket ready to collect the sap.

Sadly, I found my camera is on the blink so I don’t have pre-syrup pics for you of my own tapped trees. However, I found a very interesting set of photos and gleaned them, and this idea, from the web. It shows the traditional way (without metal spiles) of tapping trees. Just goes to show how simple this process can be! I just might try it as well and not bother to buy spiles.

If you are wanting to try the Birch Syrup without having to do it all yourself, here is a list of possibilities:

Uncle Berwyn’s Yukon Birch Syrup

Birch Boy Alaska Birch Syrup



Filed under Educational, Food Security, Heritage foods, How to...

4 responses to “A spoonful of sugar

  1. Yum! I’ve thought about doing this, but I did fret over the amount of energy needed to reduce the sap to syrup. Without a dedicated boiler, or a woodstove we’d be running anyway, I imagine it cost us a fair amount. How will you reduce your syrup?

    I’ve also had hickory syrup once. It was amazingly good, though it also reminded me of (hickory-smoked) bacon. Euell Gibbons reported that he’d made good syrup from several different maple varieties, and that his gourmet friends couldn’t distinguish between them.

  2. If you want to do bees this year you will need to order your package of bees (3lbs and queen, or 4lbs and queen) by the end of April. If you get them later they won’t have time to bulk up when your primary nectar flows happen, which I’m going to guess will be in june and july.

    The regimen I follow is to hive the package and then feed sugar syrup for 2 months after that; maybe 30 to 50 lbs of sugar. This allows the bees to build comb and be all set to go when the bloom starts.

    you probably know all this. I’ll be writing about bees in my blog starting next week. I have 45 hives.

    • Bruce–thanks for the info. No, I don’t know all that you have outlined above! In fact, the only experience I have with the idea of bee-keeping is reading and fantasizing about it. Right now, I’m thrilled to have gotten ahead of the game in the syrup dept. When you feed the bees sugar, what is the ratio of sugar to water for the syrup? At this point, I’m not even sure where I’d get bees in BC. Much research yet to be done. And, I’m a bit worried about attracting the bears, which, quite frankly, is why the bee project has been put on the back burner. I fear it will require quite the investment in capital (electric fencing and/or a bear proof building to house the hives in).

  3. I used to get birch syrup on trips to Alaska. Yummy. Hickory syrup sounds intriguing. I wonder what the reduction factor is for that . . . just thinking of where the hickories are located and how far I’d be carrying buckets . . .

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