Denali Northern Expenditure

Category: Food!

Tapped birch trees

How to Tap Birch Trees and Make Birch Syrup

This year, we decided to embark on a new adventure learning to tap birch trees and make birch syrup. The new house came with a small birch forest and we were all home all the time so we decided to add a new element to our “urban homesteading”: Birch Syrup.

Now, before you start this process, let me start with two disclaimers:

DISCLAIMER #1: You should not do this for the cost savings. Making birch syrup is not at all cost-effective. You can buy 8 oz. of birch syrup from the professionals for $29. Because birch syrup has a 100:1 ratio (meaning it takes 100 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup – compared to maple which has a 40:1 ratio), it takes a lot more work.

DISCLAIMER #2: Birch syrup, if boiled, tastes bitter and molasses-y. This can still be used as a delicious glaze on things, but is not pancake syrup. If someone says they hate birch syrup, they likely haven’t tried it cooked correctly. Because birch sap consists of a different kind of sugar than maple, you can’t just boil it. In fact, if the sap goes above 180, it will burn. This means you can’t actually boil it at all.

The combination of the 100:1 ratio and the fact it can’t actually be boiled means you really can’t make a good birch syrup without a reverse osmosis system. This allows you to pull out around half of the water from the sap without heat at all. We DIY’d our reverse osmosis system using the instructions provided by Souly Rested (if anyone deserves the Amazon affiliate commission for providing useful content, it is them with this post).

How to Tap Your Birch Trees

Being new to this, I attended webinars on the topic and read every available resource on the internet. Ultimately, what you need to know was written up by the professionals in their article: Tapping a Birch Tree. Be sure to check if your birch trees are at least 25″ in circumference. Smaller than that can hurt the tree. If you’re doing it as a family like we did, I recommend the Molly of Denali episode called: Sap Season. Molly of Denali is a FABULOUS cartoon all about life in Alaska and they do a great job explaining how to do it.

When to Tap Your Birch Trees

This was the hardest part. We wanted to start right away! And I checked every single day and saw people reporting that sap was flowing in Fairbanks and the Mat-su Valley and our trees were dry! We even saw someone on the other side of Anchorage getting sap three full days before we did! But, based on my research and our experience this year, we learned it’s best to set up 2 test taps in different locations in your yard when things are getting close. How do you know they’re getting close? Well, I’ve heard many things: after you’ve seen 4 mosquitoes, when the base of the trees are out of the snow; but mainly, it ends up being after about 3 nights above freezing and 3 days above 50 degrees F. All of our trees starting flowing at the exact same time. So, our two test taps started dripping within an hour of one another. It was a notably late year according to the experts; the sap started flowing April 23. Next year we’ll set the test taps and stop freaking out so much.

How to Process the Birch Sap

Birch sap can go bad quickly, so it has to be collected daily and stored somewhere cool (we buried our collection barrel in a mountain of snow before the snow melted and we collected all the sap in the barrel each morning). If you’re doing more than 15-20 trees, you’ll also likely have to start processing the sap each day so you can keep up.

Our process was:

  • Collect all sap in the barrel each morning
  • Run the reverse osmosis system – the pure water output would be piped to buckets, the sap runoff would be sent back into the barrel so it could run continually until we turned it off. Generally, we would keep it running until we’d pulled out about half the water (ie: the water in the buckets equaled about what was left in the barrel).
  • Pour the remaining sap from the barrel into our steam table pan on the camping stove
  • Heat the sap until about 160 degrees F (we had a meat thermometer probe attached to the side of the pan)
  • Turn on the bubbler at 160 – This was something we hadn’t initially planned on, but it turns out, it takes FOREVER for the water to evaporate out of the sap without boiling it. So Mr. T built a bubbler contraption out of CPVC pipe with holes drilled in the bottom attached to an air mattress pump we got at Target. This blew bubbles into the sap to simulate boiling at a low temperature and helped the water evaporate WAY faster.
  • Bubble the sap around 170 until the liquid level is 1-2 inches deep (too low for the bubbler to help). Don’t let it go above 180! (We set an alarm on our thermometer so we could run out and turn the heat down before that happened.)
  • At this point, if we had the previous day’s sap we had completed to this point in the fridge, we would combine the two and then let it bubble again until it was 1-2″ deep.
  • Use the refractometer to check brix levels. Birch syrup is done at 67 Brix (same as Maple). It took several combined days to get up to 40+ and then we had to complete it to 67 in a turkey roasting pan on the stove (again, don’t let it get above 180 degrees!).
  • Strain through coffee filters (it will take several filters as the sediment that’s created when heating the sap will clog it quickly) while it’s hot and put immediately into jars and seal.

Other Birch Syrup Info

  • Birch syrup is very distinct. It tastes nothing like maple and is kind of hard to describe. It’s sweet and woodsy.
  • Early run birch syrup is lighter in both color and flavor than late-run birch syrup. The sap starts to yellow as the sap flows, resulting in the change in color.
  • Taps should be pulled out when the sap turns cloudy (usually when the buds burst into leaves on the tree).
  • Holes should be left unplugged and if you tap the same tree the next year, it should be at least 6″ away from this year’s hole.

How Much Does Birch Syrup Cost?

  • Components for the Reverse Osmosis system: $388.47
  • 30 Taps: $70.51
  • Sap Buckets & Food Grade Garbage Can to use as Collection Barrel:$207.10
  • Tubing and clamps: $54.06
  • CPVC pipe for bubbler: $14.70
  • Blower for bubbler: $12.19
  • Steam Table Pan for cooking into syrup: $30.76
  • Adorable 8oz syrup bottles: $28.99
  • 2 Propane Tanks: Free – A friend had a few extras and gave them to us
  • Propane: $52.70
  • Coleman Camping Stove: Free – I got a bonus at work in the form of a Cabela’s gift card that just covered the camping stove.
  • Refractometer: $23.99

TOTAL COST: $883.47

After about 17 days and nearly 200 gallons of sap, we ended up with 2 gallons of syrup. So…

TOTAL COST PER GALLON: $441.74 – remember how I said you should just buy it from the professionals?! Well it actually turns out that if you’re buying it for $30/8 oz from them, it would cost you $480 (lucky for you, they also sell it in 32 oz jugs for just $105).

Hopefully next year, we can bring the cost down significantly since much of the cost this year was one-time purchases. Overall, we really loved the process. It was fun to do each day as a family, and it comes at the perfect time (the 2 weeks before the trees get leaves, so we’re all antsy for spring and needing something to do until it comes!). Also, we’ve got the neighbors on board and we may be doing a street-wide birch tapping blitz next year! I’ll let you know how it goes. ūüėČ

Your Breakfast is Robbing You

Your Breakfast is Robbing You

If you haven’t yet calculated it, your breakfast is probably costing your family much more money than you think it is. Stop eating expensive breakfasts and switch to some cheap breakfast ideas. I’ll share the numbers of how much cereal could cost us and how much we actually spent last year on our inexpensive breakfast alternative (and how oatmeal can actually be yummy).

Cereal is Expensive

About once a month, we eat cereal for breakfast as a family. That’s right. Once a month. The last time we did this, I realized our family of five goes through the equivalent of one Costco box of cereal each time we eat cereal.

Peanut Butter Ball Inflation

With all the numbers we ran last week in the formulations of our new plans, I was reminded just how long is really left in our journey. I’m impatient by nature and would like to retire yesterday! As I made a batch of peanut butter balls, I realized the journey is worth it.¬†The recipe for peanut butter balls comes from my great aunt, Joanie, who always knew that delicious candy could make the world a better place. These tiny bits of heaven are simple to make, but take quite a bit of time. After the peanut butter center is mixed, it has to be rolled into balls and chilled before dipping each one in chocolate. As I carefully rolled and dipped a batch recently, I started thinking about all the parallels to personal finance (geek alert!):

The Power of a Good Cleanse

I got a bit trigger-happy this morning and published TWO posts, so be sure to also check out¬†What I Learned at the Holiday Bazaar¬†and we’ll hopefully back to our regular posting schedule on Monday! ūüôā

Every January, after the holiday treat-eating, Mr. T and I go on a two-week food cleanse. Don’t worry, we’re not crazy.¬†Let me explain what that means for us. We don’t juice. We don’t starve. Mainly, we focus on eating just fruits and vegetables. We condense Whole Living’s 28-day cleanses (there are several years available online, so we use all those resources for recipes) into just two weeks. We mainly do it to jumpstart our bodies. We eat so much wheat and so many carbs (cracked 7-grain oatmeal for breakfast, sandwich with homemade whole wheat bread for lunch, rice or pasta for dinner, etc.), so we take two weeks to give our body a break from processing the usual stuff. We cut out all meat, dairy, grains, eggs etc. After the first five days, we add back eggs and gluten-free grains.¬†Also in January, we go on a spending cleanse. We pay for our cleanse produce¬†and other food for the month¬†and nothing more at the grocery store.

How Much Do Groceries Cost in Alaska?

The Average Cost of Food in Alaska

To determine the average price of groceries in Alaska and the U.S. as a whole, we’ll turn to data from the USDA. Each month, the USDA publishes a national “Cost of Food Report” for the month prior to publication. September 2015’s Cost of Food Report showed that for a family of 4 with two kids ages 6-8 and 9-11, the “liberal food plan” was $1294.40 a month. The “thrifty plan” was half that at $651.90/month.¬†(For a family of two ages 19-50, the “thrifty plan” is $389.60/month and the “liberal plan” is $776/month.)

Alaska and Hawaii warrant an entirely separate report that is published semi-annually, and only the “thrifty plan” is calculated. The most recent report showed that for that same family of four, the thrifty meal plan in Alaska costs $772.90/month. (Hawaii was $1125.70/month! Ouch! Maybe I shouldn’t complain so much…)

What’s In My Freezer?

A chest freezer is a great way to help save time and money on food. If you have frozen meals ready to go, you’re less likely to order in or go out to eat. Freezing food can also help you cut down on wasted food. I love the idea of doing elaborate days of chopping and cooking and baking and freezing to have meals in the freezer for the full month. The reality, however, is that I don’t have the patience, time, or space in my freezer for this kind of thing (though we did do this before each of our babies was born and it was a lifesaver). In July, we fill our freezer with salmon from dipnetting. In Alaska, freezer sizes are dependent upon the type of animal you plan to freeze. We have a basic fish freezer and not a moose freezer, so after dipnetting, there isn’t a lot of space left. Instead of full meals, I’ve started freezing shortcuts. Here’s what’s currently in my freezer:

Don’t Eat Money!

I know. I just finished saying¬†I’m not telling you what to do. But I’m making an exception today. I’m not sure how I missed this trend, but apparently, people are eating gold. Yes, actual gold. In food. What’s even more fascinating to me is that I came across this trend in the healthcare sphere where people were questioning if eating gold was safe. Pfffffffffttttt (that was my tap water blasting out of my mouth dramatically). Come again? Is eating gold safe? WHY IS THIS EVEN A QUESTION?! (yes, I’m yelling)

How to Save Money on Groceries (even in Alaska!)

Alaska is not a cheap place to live. It is also really hard to determine a “price point” for any item here because they can fluctuate greatly based on barges, etc. And Alaska doesn’t follow the usual, consistent grocery cycle budget-conscious shoppers in the lower 48 count on.¬†With that in mind, there are ways to cut down the costs significantly on groceries in Alaska. Here’s how we do it:

The Best, Easy Salmon Recipe

Mr. T is a man of few words (but crazy ties‚Ķ I mean, he has a shag carpet tie! I digress‚Ķ). He‚Äôs the salmon chef around here, so I talked him in to jumping in on this post to share his Alaskan expertise (since he‚Äôs been cooking it weekly for about five years now). After last week’s dipnetting adventure, we’re ready to cook up some more! Grab your baking sheet, line it with foil and get ready. Here he is now! Introducing, Mr. T‚Ķ.

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