Special Ingredient: Sap
Brewing with maple or birch sap offers more complexity to a beer.
MARIKA JOSEPHSON, the co-owner/brewer at Scratch Brewing in Ava, Illinois, knows a lot about brewing with ingredients found right outside the back door. So the grove of maple and birch trees that are on the property of the rural Illinois brewery are routinely put to work. When you hear maple, the obvious second word is “syrup,” but in the case of Scratch, they found that using sap offered more complexity to a beer.
“We started fooling around with sap when we were homebrewers, and we didn’t expect it to taste like syrup because it was so thin; it’s really watery, but it is sweet with a mineral character,” Josephson says. “What we found was that after fermentation, it really dried out the beer, gave it a mineral character— like mineral water—and even cherry esters, too.”
The brewers have found that darker, maltier beers, such as strong porters and
stouts, work best for brewing with sap. With lighter-grain bills, the mineral taste came off as medicinal, Josephson says. When they make beers with sap, they use the sugary liquid in place of water.
To do the same at home isn’t too difficult, Josephson says. There are books (including Scratch Brewing’s The Homebrewer’s Almanac: A Seasonal Guide to Making Your Own Beer from Scratch) and videos that show you how to tap a sugar maple or a birch. Depending on where you live, there are also local groups that will take you into the woods for sap.
For homebrewing, you’ll need about 10 gallons (37.8 liters) or two trees’ worth of sap (collected over a day or so) to make a beer. And if you want the maple flavor, peeling off some bark from the tree and toasting it in the oven before adding it to the boil works just fine. The best time to tap a tree is in late winter, early to mid-february. —John Holl