If you were to go for a walk on our peninsula these days, you’d see some strange things. You might notice bottles and jugs of clear liquid set along the trail, or stashed away under a rocky overhang, or under a tree root. You may even see a somewhat disheveled, hermity-looking character moving with a suggestion of furtiveness through the forest, carrying similar jugs. Some containers might have paper tape labels, with the contents scrawled in hasty marking pen, but you might be excused if you doubted this information.
Most sane people would assume they’d stumbled upon evidence of bootlegging, until they opened a bottle and took a sniff. While they may not recognize the smell, they’d at least be assured that these jugs do not contain moonshine. To some people, “moonshine” is another word for “monkey business,” a term that might be applied to this sort of behavior.
Our birch tapping operation has gotten a little out of hand.
For a while after I set two taps in our door yard birch, I thought I might have jumped the season. The spiels soon clogged with ice; what little sap melted through dribbled lightly into the waiting jugs.
Then the weather turned. We warmed up about 5 or 10° in the daytime, and more than an inch of rain fell on the “homestead.” After that, the birch sap took off!
Soon, I harvested about a gallon a day, and jugs of birch sap began to clog the arctic entryway. I started a second batch of birch wine. We made gallons of juice concentrate, using the nutritious sap instead of water. I began giving jugs away to friends. Around mid month, I decided to shut the operation down.
One “shuts” a tree tap by pounding a wooden plug into the hole. For this purpose I cut one of the stouter suckers growing at the base of the birch. The first plug, of apparently dormant wood, shut off the flow, but I cut the second plug from sapwood. It acted as a straw, continuing to drip sap at a slower, yet still steady rate. For lack of anything better to do at the moment, I hung one of the jugs on it, and left it.
It now occurs to me that this is a handy way to tap a tree if you don’t have spiels or other tubing for the job. If I’d planned on setting this up, I’d probably strip the bark off for the inch or so of branch that goes inside the jug.
I’d intended to replace it the next morning with a solid plug, or even an old plastic wine cork, but we gained a new “customer,” when a friend we’d given sap to shared it with some other friends, and they liked it. I also realized that I’d forgotten an excellent use for the sap: root beer.
When we started making root beer, we looked at a lot of variations, including birch beer, and root beer that uses birch elements. Many of these are made by boiling fresh-cut birch twigs, so why not replace the water with birch sap? It’s traditional, certainly “rooty,” and also adds an element of nutrition to the soft drink.
These new developments will likely keep the taps open a bit longer, then I’ll need to find a proper plug, and shut them down till next year. Meanwhile, there’s still plenty of time for “moonshine.”