I was only in Latvia for 3 hours when I was offered my first glass of birch water. I had never heard of birch water before and I was curious how it was made. My new friend Andis said he would show me, and the next day he did. We got into the car and drove into the forest. I had no idea what we were doing or what we were looking for, but we had a saw in the car with us, and he was clearly looking for something.
He stopped the car, jumped out and cut down a young birch tree. I asked him what the tree was for and he said it was to make the tap for the birch water. He told me,
“You can use anything really, a metal pipe or plastic tube, it doesn’t matter. But birch water is not a necessity, we do it for fun, so if we are going to do it we should do it the right way.”
I liked that… Every spring, right after the temperature gets above freezing but before the leaves begin to grow, Latvians like to collect water from the birch tree. It can only be done for a few weeks, but you can get enough to last for the whole summer or longer. As it matures, the taste changes, and it is noticeably different just after a few days. The first glass I had was over two years old. It was quite sour, and obviously an acquired taste, but I was assured that fresh birch water was much sweeter. So I stood by with my camera and watched Andis make a tap out of this birch tree. He did it quickly, in less than 10 minutes…
This is what you need:
- 2 drill bits, 1.5” and about .5” or so
- Sharp knife
- Piece of cheesecloth to cover the bucket
- Piece of string to tie the cloth to the bucket.
- A small piece of oakum
And this is what you do.
01. Cut down a small birch tree that’s about two inches in diameter. Cut off a piece about ten inches long.
02. With the large drill bit make a test hole on a scrap piece of wood. Shave down one end of the stick until it fits snug in the hole.
03. With the smaller drill bit, make a hole on one end about 3 inches deep.
04. With the saw, make a cut half way into the stick about 3 inches up, approx. where the hole ends.
05. Place the stick standing up on the table with the end with the hole end on the table. Take a sharp knife, place it in the center of the end and push down on it until you get to the cut. This should split the stick.
06. Cut a groove from the hole to the end of the stick for the water to run down.
07. Flip the stick over, cut a small notch about 1/4” from the end. This will make the water drip straight down.
08. With the large drill bit, drill into the birch tree that you want to tap. The higher up the tree, the sweeter the water will taste. Drill into the tree about 6 to 8 inches. Water should start to flow from the tree.
09. Take a small piece of oakum, or something similar, and wrap it around the
shaved end of the tap. This will keep the water from running out around the tap. Insert the tap into the tree. Tie the cheesecloth around the top of the bucket and place the bucket under the tap.
Now you wait. The amount of water that you collect depends on so many different things, the weather, the tree, etc. We collected about 20 liters the first two days, so make sure that you have a lot of empty bottles on hand.
After a few days the taste and color of the birch water will change. You can filter the water again through the cheesecloth if you like, this will make it clear again and change the taste. Some people like it fresh and some people like it old, when it is fresh it tastes sweet, when it is old it tastes a lot like a dirty sock, try it both ways and see which you prefer. You can tap the same tree at different heights to find what you like the best.