It’s the so-called “superdrink that most folk have never heard of. Gayle meets a Perthshire couple tapping into the potential of birch water…
Bearded forester Rob Clamp is drilling a small hole into what he calls the “sweet spot” of a birch tree in the heart of Grandtully Forest.
It’s late March and he and his pregnant wife Gabrielle are harvesting birch water for their company Birken Tree.
Once the water has been “tapped”, it’s gently pasteurised and frozen before being sold for £3 per 250ml bottle.
“Birch water is packed with vitamins, minerals, enzymes and antioxidants and has many other health giving properties,” says Rob.
“We can trace its use in Scotland back thousands of years but its potential to purify, heal and replenish has largely been forgotten. Essentially, we are reviving this folk knowledge.”
There’s only one time of the year to harvest the valuable liquid – early spring, when the sap rises (runs up the inside of the trunk to provide nutrients for the new leaves growing on the branches).
“The tapping window is very tight,” says Rob.
“You know the time is right when you see the buds start to swell. You get an eye for it.”
Handing me a drill, Rob invites me to have a shot at tapping.
“Look for a spot about three feet above the ground and drill a small hole,” he instructs.
Hole drilled, the sap starts to flow down the trunk, passing a small slug which flips up its antenna in surprise.
Rob then cleans out the hole, pops the tap in, and attaches a bag to collect the special liquid.
It’s a slow and steady process and can take 24 hours to extract up to 10L of birch water.
“Hundreds of litres flow through each tree, so tapping doesn’t harm it in any way,” he adds.
Once the tree has “given” up its bounty, the hole is plugged to allow the tree to heal itself.
“We’re tapping 100 trees this year, here and at Battleby, and that should produce around 5,000L of birch water,” says Rob. “The plan is to expand next year.”
So, how does it taste? I try some fresh from the tree and find it’s like water but with a silky texture and a slightly sweet aftertaste.
Could this replace my usual sugary, caffeinated energy drink when I need a boost?
“Absolutely!” says Gabrielle. “There’s a real, energising, reinvigorating freshness to birch water.
“It’s a healthy alternative to sugary, caffeinated drinks, energy drinks.”
Birken Tree was launched last year after Gabrielle bought a bottle of birch water and saw it was imported from Finland.
“I thought we were missing a trick!” she says.
“There are millions of birch trees in Scotland, so it made sense to harvest them ourselves.
“The water has so many health benefits including the ability to cleanse the liver, soothe arthritic pain, rejuvenate skin and balance cholesterol.”
Alongside the water, the company uses birch leaves to make a purifying tea which helps treat urinary and skin problems.
There’s also a fungus – the chaga mushroom – which grows on birch trees – which has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, and is a powerful cancer fighter.
Birken Tree prides itself on being the only producer of homegrown birch water in the UK.
Sure, there are UK brands but they all import their products from Finland, Latvia, Russia and beyond, plus they use a sterilisation process to provide a longer shelf-life, altering the taste, smell and health benefits.
Birken Tree, on the other hand, has a very short shelf life of just a month. It’s fresh for three days and then starts to ferment – hence the pasteurisation!
“Leave it any longer than a month and it starts to taste yeasty – best avoided!” giggles Gabrielle.
It can be drunk straight, used in cooking, and the couple are working on a sparkling version which they say works well with gin.
“It’s really versatile,” says Rob. “You can use it to poach chicken and fish, add it to whisky to take the burn off, or use it in desserts like birch-sap croissants,” says Rob. “We’re seeing it used in high-end restaurants and cafes.”
Sustainability and eco-friendliness are at the core of Birken Tree’s ethos.
“There are around 100,000 hectares of birch woodland in Scotland – around 200 million trees – and as birch trees are considered to be among the oldest species of tree still living, we need to look after them,” says Rob.
“We only use wild birch trees, not plantations, and we aim to take care of our native birch woodlands, show there are non-timber benefits, and ensure that future generations of these trees are nurtured.”
Birken Tree’s birch water is available in 250ml bottles for £3.
The company is expanding with the launch of a sparkling version of its birch sap, along with two flavour variants – a wild cranberry and blaeberry base and a meadowsweet base.
For centuries, birch sap has been used in the Highlands after long winters as a revitalising tonic because it is so full of vitamins and minerals. www.birkentree.co.uk