Friday, July 12, 2013

How to Make Birch Sap Beer



My husband has made his own beer for several years, and this spring, we decided to make our first batch of birch sap beer, inspired by a couple whose B&B we visited near Talkeetna.  It was very tasty. Below is our experience of collecting, making, and tasting the result. 

(At the bottom of this blog entry, I list several useful resources for readers who may be interested in exploring their own beer making). 

Bryan bought four taps at Alaska Mill and Feed (www.alaskamillandfeed.com), which look like slim, metal spouts, each one about ½ inch in diameter and 3 inches long. Our mentors indicated that the sap starts running around April 20, but the winter of 2012-13 lasted f-o-r-e-v-e-r, including three snow storms in May, so it wasn't until about May 15 that Bryan tapped four birch trees. To do so, he used a ½ inch drill bit to cut an upward angled hole through the bark to the sap layer and inserted the tightly fitting tap. Under this spout, we hung a cleaned vinegar bottle, because the mouth is narrow enough to limit entry of debris and also because we could string a bungy cord through the handle and around the tree to hold it in place.

Each afternoon, we tramped through the increasingly soft and slushy snow surrounding the trees to collect that day's accumulation.  We strained the results through paper coffee filters before pouring the sap into wide mouthed jars that we froze. This was a fun endeavor, especially at that “hold-your-breath” time of year waiting for the winter to finally end and spring to burst forth, as it does here. The running of the sap represented the first discernible sign of spring!  Since we enjoyed this process (and the result) and live in a spruce and birch forest, we plan to involve more trees next year (so we are saving additional vinegar bottles and malt jars!) 

I was surprised how variable the output was. One tree was the champion producer, two others dribbled out negligible results, and a fourth was in between. When the big producer slowed just before the trees started to green up, about ten days later, we removed the taps and caulked the holes. Altogether, we collected about 2.5 gallons.  Over the course of the summer, we will check those holes to make sure that the trees are not "weeping" there.


A few weeks later, we thawed all those jars and Bryan made his beer.

Bryan's favorite recipe calls for 4 gallons of water, so he used 2.5 gallons of birch sap and 1.5 gallons of water.  While the mixture heated to 160 degrees (pasteurizing temperature), he ground his mix of grains, and then added them in a giant "tea bag" which he let steep for half an hour, making the cabin smell really good and oat-y.  At the end of this step, we save the grains and divide it into packages.  I make bread with two cups of grain and we share the rest with the rabbits and chickens that just gobble it up. 

After that process, Bryan raises the temperature to near boiling and adds the viscous and hard  sweeteners, followed by the hops and then flavorings, like dried orange peel (the latter two in muslin bags for easy removal).  Finally, he lets the liquid (wort) cool to room temperature, at which point he pours it into the fermenter (a white plastic bucket with a lid and air lock on top), and adds the yeast. 
(Since neither the animals nor I like the bitter flavor of hops, I just dump those in the compost pile). 
For several days to a week, the beer ages in the fermenter, tucked into the corner of the cabin where we can listen as it bubbles CO2 up through the air lock, indicating that the yeast is eating the sugar and creating alcohol. When the beer quiets down, we siphon it into a large, glass carboy, leaving two or so inches of gunky yeast and other solids behind.  The resulting liquid is pumpkin orange at first. As the yeast slowly settles to the bottom over the course of the next two or three weeks, striped layers form, like ascending clouds in a sunset  It is very pretty.  When the master brewer thinks it time, he siphons the new batch into a pressurized soda keg and adds a squirt of CO2.   


Bryan's favorite recipe is a Belgian style Tripel, like a Chimay. With the birch sap, he noticed a few differences from prior batches.  The first week or so it tasted sweeter than normal, with a flavor he described as banana, and had a lovely, woody undertone, rather like a wine lightly aged in oak. Over time, both the over-sweetness and the subtle wood flavor receded. Maybe he'll adjust his flavors a bit next spring when he makes another batch of birch sap beer.


I encouraged Bryan to learn to make beer (and me to make wine) for several reasons.  Primarily, we wanted to shed purchased water weight products to make better use of the weight allowance on small planes to the cabin.  We can't make dairy products, but we can make beer and wine and hummus from dried chickpeas.  Secondarily,  my husband never learned to cook. When he married me at 41, his menu options were limited to baked potatoes and pasta covered with some canned contents.  I figured that if I encouraged him to make beer, his enlightened self-interest would help him learn the mysteries of a kitchen, like on and off switches, and measuring ingredients, and washing used pots.  This has proved fun for him and useful to me once a month when he now cooks (and cleans up)!
He doesn't always travel with a full keg,
but this was for a group picnic 


We don't have a way to refrigerate the beer.  In the winter, we keep the keg inside the cabin (so it won't freeze), hidden behind the couch.  To get the drink cold, I pour the beer into a metal cup that I stick in the snow for a few minutes.  In the summer, we store the keg on the shady, north facing back porch. During this season, I keep the metal cups in the chest freezer (powered by solar/wind power) and pour our respective libations of wine and beer into those cups, in the freezer, for an hour before carrying them down to the dock, where my husband awaits me for our sacrosanct kayaking happy hour.   Salud!
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Resources:

In Anchorage, we buy our beer and wine making supplies from:  Arctic Brew Supply:  www.arcticbrewsupply.com.  We also bought two used  55 gallon drums for rain barrels there.
In Houston, TX we bought supplies and took beer and wine making classes from De Falco's: www.defalcos.com

The Home Brewer's Answer Book by Ashton Lewis has been a very user friendly resource, too.     

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Under this blog entry, feel to write any comments, suggestions, or questions you may wish to share with my husband, the master brewer.      

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