Last week I tagged along with a man in Weare who’s tapping black birch trees for their sap. While its syrup is not as sweet as maple syrup, it can be an unexpected and tasty ingredient in home-brewed beer.
Peter Ashworth and his son James are getting ready to tap a handful of black birch trees scattered on his twenty acres of land. He points to a 35 gallon orange, plastic drum.
“This is I think about half full. This is maple here. And we’re getting ready to switch over to the birch.”
At this time of year, Ashworth says the window for collecting maple sap begins to close and the birches start flowing.
“I try not to drill a tree that’s any less than like 9 inches. I don’t think it’s good for the tree.”
In a typical season, Ashworth collects around 200 gallons of sap from the black birch trees. It takes twice as much sap from birch than it does from maple. Like maple, the sap goes into an evaporator which condenses the sap down to a fraction of its original volume. He adds sugar to make the syrup.
“It’s very similar to, I think maple but it’s a little more woody tasting and I think it’s a little more earthy tasting. It’s different. It’s hard to describe…”
He then uses the syrup as the key ingredient in his home-brewed beer. Its dynamic and rich flavor is not too heavy or sweet. Rather it’s an understated and undefinable quality that keeps his friends asking for more. Ashworth adds cascade and noble hops that he grows himself, but not too much, and ferments it to a respectable eight percent alcohol per volume. After a twelve-week process from bark to bottle, Ashworth has about 15 gallons of ale and a few gallons of syrup.
“There’s some things that really shouldn’t be in beer as far as I’m concerned but the idea of birch beer really made sense to me.”
It’s taken twenty years of experimenting to perfect the beer. Now, he’s expanding and trying black birch wines and something called a perry melomel.
“My neighbor called me and said, ‘I’ve got lots and lots of pears. You want some?’ –‘Ya!’ and I went right down and I got two bushels and I made a perry out of it, which is a honey pear wine.”
The beers and wines Ashworth makes are popular with his circle of friends, but it may not be for everyone. The beauty of homebrewing is you have the freedom to deviate from the types of drinks that are mass-produced for the majority palate and focus more on what you like as an individual—or experiment with drinks you can’t find anywhere else. Ashworth says using ingredients from his property, or from his neighbors’, helps him get in touch with his colonial roots. But making homemade mead and beer is an ancient practice, and learning the process helps Ashworth recover something that was lost in the prohibition era and with the advent of industrial distillation.
Indeed, his outdoor furnace may be built with modern materials, but Ashworth says its primitive configuration is no less effective.
“…Got an old sink that’s been wielded together so it’s a great, big evaporator. And we have some cinderblocks on the bottom there and we just build a fire under it and it works pretty well. Good place to go sit and drink beer and boil sap.”