How-To: Turn Sap and Syrup into Beer, Wine, and Liquor
As much as we love to drizzle (or drown, let’s be honest) our pancakes in maple syrup, you might be surprised to learn that tree sap can actually be used to make an array of drinks, with results that will far surpass your typical sugar buzz.
In fact, there are several companies that have ventured into the world of sap related alcoholic beverages. From maple mead to maple beer and sap ale to birch wine, these maple beverages are sure to spur your creativity, whether you are a beginning homebrewer or a budding entrepreneur.
The following excerpt is from The Sugarmaker’s Companion by Michael Farrell. It has been adapted for the web.
The sap and syrup from maple and birch trees can be used for brewing, fermenting, and distilling into a wide variety of alcoholic beverages. Since maple and birch sap basically consist of water and sugar, they are excellent raw materials for brewing, fermenting, and distilling. Although sap and syrup are relatively expensive raw materials, the premium price that the finished products command in the marketplace makes it well worth the higher cost of production. While homebrewers have been using maple and birch for decades to make various wines, beers, and liquors, an increasing number of businesses are now commercializing these products.
Maple Sap Ale
Making beer from the last run of sap is a forgotten tradition that is now making a comeback. Many years ago, rather than making really dark and potentially off-flavored syrup from the yellowish, bacteria-laden sap at the end of the season, some sugarmakers used this sap to brew a strong beer. They would boil it down partially and then add yeast, hops, and perhaps some raisins or sugar, then stick it in a barrel for a few months until it was ready. The tradition of sap beer was popular enough that Vermont artist John Cassel recorded a song all about sap beer in the 1970s.
Kevin Lawson specializes in small batches of unique, fine beers at his Sugarhouse Brewery in Warren, Vermont. He has brewed beer with fresh sap, but his preferred method is to use the partially boiled-down sap that comes off the evaporator at the end of the season. Many sugarmakers will chase the last of the syrup out of the pan by feeding in permeate or water when there is no more sap to boil. Once the contents of the evaporator become diluted to the point that it doesn’t make sense to keep boiling, many sugarmakers will just dump the remaining contents. When Kevin heard about this, he asked a couple of sugarmakers to skip this process altogether. When there is no more quality sap to boil, they simply drain the pans and bring the contents to Kevin. With everything mixed together, the sugar content usually ranges between 10 and 14. Kevin now turns this into the Maple Tripple Ale, a fine beer that won the Silver Cup at the 2012 World Beer Cup for Specialty Beers. Kevin makes it a point to only get the partially boiled sap from a couple of sugarmakers who stop making syrup before the sap starts to turn buddy or off-flavored. If you try this at home, be sure that whatever liquid you draw off the evaporator tastes and smells good. If you have already reached a point in the season when you are producing an off-flavored commercial-grade syrup, then your beer probably won’t be winning any awards!
The Lake Placid Pub & Brewery also experimented with maple sap beer in 2012 with great success. Kevin Litchfield, the head brewer, simply replaced the 360-gallon kettle of water with sap and then added in 5 gallons of maple syrup at the end for a maple sap pale ale. Not an overly sweet beer, it had just a hint of maple flavor. The beer was extremely popular and sold out in a few short weeks, much sooner than other seasonal varieties. Given the success of the maple sap ale, Kevin used maple sap to replace water for their signature Ubu ale in 2013. The sap added a little extra sweetness and potency to the beer, making their most popular beer even better.
Whereas maple sap ales can only be made for a brief period every year, beers that include maple syrup can be brewed year round. The microbrewery business in the United States has been exploding in recent years with a focus on small batches of unique beers. By using just a small amount of maple syrup, you can make a slightly sweet beer that tastes great and has excellent marketing appeal. This trend seems to be catching on, as there are a number of breweries that now include a maple beer in their assortment of craft brews. Sam Adams, one of the largest craft breweries in the US, goes through a lot of maple syrup when making their Maple Pecan Porter. Although I doubt anyone along the lines of Budweiser will ever be brewing with pure maple, there are over 2,000 microbreweries in the country, so if you have one near your sugaring operation, see if they want to use your syrup for a seasonal special. Maple beers seem to be especially popular during the autumn when maple leaves are at their peak colors; they should become even more popular in March when the sap is owing throughout the Northeast.
Although many of us have probably heard of birch beer, few people actually know what it is. Historically, the sap from black birch (Betula lenta) trees was used to produce a non-alcoholic, carbonated beverage similar to root beer. There were also some regions that created alcoholic versions of the product, but this was the exception rather than the norm. The vast majority of birch beer on the market today uses artificial flavoring and sweeteners to create a carbonated soda with a unique flavor reminiscent of wintergreen. Some manufacturers claim that they use birch oil that has been distilled from the sap of birch trees, though this seems highly unlikely.
I suspect most of the flavoring agents are chemically synthesized or come from the bark and other parts of the tree rather than the sap.
The big opportunity that I see with birch beer is using birch sap to replace water in regular beer recipes. Although there is confusion over what birch beer actually is, the name is common enough that it invokes people’s curiosity. Using clear, fresh birch sap from the beginning of the season in lieu of water allows brewers to create a unique “birch beer” that has excellent marketing appeal. The birch sap probably won’t change the flavor of whatever beer is made with it, but since birch sap is a spring tonic full of minerals and nutrients, it does make the beer a bit healthier than your standard beer and provides an excellent marketing angle. The Lake Placid Pub & Brewery used 360 gallons of our birch sap to create a birch beer in 2013; it was very successful, and they are already looking forward to doing it again next year.
There are several companies throughout the world using birch sap as one of the main ingredients in wines. One of these is Sapworld, which is owned and operated by Craig Lewis in Newfoundland. In addition to other birch-derived products, he has developed and copyrighted Springwine, aka Lady of the Woods. Its marketing appeal is based on the fact that he uses birch sap from the pristine forests of Newfoundland that is full of minerals and nutrients. Sugar is added to the birch sap until the sugar content is high enough for fermenting into wine. According to their marketing materials, this wine . . . “shows clear and bright in the glass; provides a delicate fragrance of soft apple and pear; sits well in the mouth with pleasant acids balancing the evident fruit sugars; persistent flavors of ripe pear, Mandarin orange, and Delicious apple blend harmoniously and without bitterness.” This certainly sounds good, and with the natural origin of birch trees, it makes for a winning combination.
Boreal Bounty is another company from the Manitoba region that specializes in birch wine and other boreal forest products. Started in 2005 by Doug Eryou in conjunction with the D. D. Leobard Winery of Winnipeg, they developed a wine called Tansi derived from birch sap. In addition to their standard birch sap wine, they also have a wide range of products that use the extracts of other boreal trees and plants. Their list of wines includes birch sap mixed with cherry, lingonberry, sea buckthorn, cranberry, and Saskatoon. They also utilize the sap of boxelders— the only species of maple growing in Manitoba.
While touring different sugarbushes in Quebec a few years ago I met Alberto Milan, the owner of a Canadian wine company. This was during the height of the recession when many businesses were suffering, yet Alberto’s sales were soaring. He provided us with a brilliant rationale for why he decided to focus on using maple for wine rather than as a pancake topping. According to Alberto, “When the economy is good, people have lots of money and they like to celebrate and drink alcohol . . . and when the economy is bad, people are upset and like to drown their sorrows by drinking alcohol.” So no matter what happens with the economy, the sale of alcoholic beverages continues to grow. Sales have been particularly strong in China and are now expanding into the US market through a distributor under the name of Maple Connoisseur. His company produces a table wine, sparkling wine, and ice wine all made with pure maple syrup. The process involves diluting the syrup with water and then starting the fermentation process until most of the sugar is consumed by yeast. Venerable is the table wine and is not nearly as sweet as you would imagine it to be, though the ice wine definitely packs a punch.
I was first introduced to maple mead by Jeff Moore, a seventh-generation sugarmaker from Windswept Maples Farm in Loudon, New Hampshire. He went to Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks and spent a lot of his free time in the spring helping at our sugaring operation in Lake Placid. I’ve gotten to know Jeff and the Moore family well over the years; my wife and I visited their farm during our honeymoon in summer 2011. As a wedding gift, they gave us a couple of bottles of mead that was produced from their maple syrup by the Sap House Meadery in Center Ossippee, New Hampshire. We were both greatly impressed with the quality of the mead, so I reached out to the owners to learn more about their company.
Sap House Meadery was started in 2010 by two cousins, Ash Fischbein and Matt Trahan. Both worked in the restaurant business for many years, but had grown tired of cooking and wanted to do something different. Since they were both avid homebrewers, they decided to start making wine with local ingredients from their region. There aren’t any grapes in New Hampshire, but there is certainly a lot of maple syrup! After visiting 35 sugarhouses all over the state, they were especially impressed with the operation at Windswept Maples and started to get their syrup exclusively from them. Most of their meads are not strictly made with maple syrup, but rather use a blend of maple syrup with honey—this is known as an acerglyn. Many people expect maple mead to be excessively sweet, and depending on how it is made, it certainly can be. However, by properly controlling the sugar concentration and fermentation, it is possible to make maple-syrup-based meads that are relatively dry or semi-sweet. After years of experimentation, Ash told me he found the perfect balance that seems to work for them. They have already won awards for their signature Sugar Maple mead at the International Wine Festival in the Finger Lakes of New York. They also produce a variety of other meads utilizing local ingredients, including their Hopped Blueberry Maple, Blackberry Maple, and Peach Maple.
Meaderies have been gaining in popularity in recent years. Ash told me that when they started, there were only 35 meaderies in the country and 2 in New England. In the past two years, 6 more meaderies opened in New England and there are now over 100 in the United States. Mead is considered “other wine” by the federal government, and there are some hassles in dealing with the bureaucracy of creating and selling alcoholic beverages. However, if you are willing to go through all the red tape, there are excellent opportunities in turning some of your maple syrup into another valuable drink.
Maple Liquors and Spirits
Maple syrup can be distilled into hard alcohols or can be added to finished products as a flavoring agent. Craft distilleries are becoming increasingly popular as many states enact legislation that supports these operations, rather than forbidding them as they have in the past. Since maple
syrup is so expensive, it makes much more sense to use it as a flavoring agent rather than simply as a source of sugar for distillation purposes. However, with the increasing amount of off-flavored, commercial-grade syrups being produced at the end of the season these days, I suspect that this could change. Thanks to advances in vacuum tubing and spout designs, many sugarmakers are still gathering plenty of sap at the end of the season when the syrup being produced is no longer fit for human consumption. This type of syrup is perfect for distilling into vodkas and other spirits, since none of the off-flavor will come through in the finished product. You can then add some high-quality syrup for flavoring to have a 100 percent pure maple spirit.
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