On a hot day in mid-summer, there’s nothing like a glass of frozen sap water.
Indeed, Barb Brown will compete with her husband Dennis for the first sip out of a frozen jug, when the sugar content has risen to the top and they can get the full swallow of sweet water.
“I call this heavy water. It’s like heavy, sweet water,” Brown said on a recent visit to her Canim Lake farm. “We love the sap. We freeze it and in the summertime, we take it out and fight to see who gets there first. Sometimes if we’re kind and generous, we will pour each other a glass and share it.”
The Browns have been tapping the birch trees on their property for close to a decade after taking a course in Quesnel. The couple had originally thought it might potentially be a viable commercial enterprise, given that they were self-employed and had so many birch trees on their property.
But after over-indulging in all the birch sap products – it can be turned into everything from wine to syrups to fermented tonics – they decided it wasn’t for them, partly because it wasn’t to their taste and partly because the work would tie them up all season. It takes 80 gallons of boiled birch sap to make one gallon of syrup, compared with 40 gallons from a maple.
But just one sip of the unfiltered sap was enough to sell them on tree-tapping for their own pleasure.
“It’s like a tonic, lots of minerals in it,” Dennis said. “It’s like the freshest water you can get, from the ground.”
Plus, they can do it together. Although there are commercial enterprises along the Fraser River, or in Quesnel or Horsefly, the Browns find it’s just as fun to do it on their own, along with friends in their social circle. All they need is a drill, bucket and spout, and a birch tree that’s at least 10 inches in diameter with a healthy crown.
“There’s no shortage of trees here,” Dennis said.
Trees on north-facing slopes are said to be ideal to get the best and fastest flow. The process is fairly simple, although Barb maintains they are learning as they go, in terms of how far they should drill the hole – about two inches seems to be right – so they get the maximum flow. If it’s too deep, it doesn’t run as fast. If it’s too shallow, the spout could fall out, dumping the coveted sap on the ground.
In a season – which may only last a couple of weeks – the Browns are able to collect up to 40 gallons of their precious sap water. Just this past Tuesday alone, Barb filled up five gallons. “This is our favourite tree,” she said, stopping at a tree on the edge of the hayfield. “It tells the history of us tapping here because it has the old holes and whatnot.”
She pointed out the old holes, plugged with fresh birch. Although the Browns haven’t researched its medicinal qualities, the Nordics have long used birch sap, while the Russians and Japanese ferment it. The Browns aren’t fond of the fermented birch, which to Dennis tastes bitter.
As soon as the trees start to bud, the Browns stop tapping them, knowing it’s close to the end of the season. They expect it won’t be long now until the season has ended. But until then, they’re out collecting as much sap as they can.
“We’re looking to get maximum output in the shortest period of time,” Barb said. “It’s just a yummy good thing and it gets us moving around.”