Marika Josephson, co-owner and 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.
What about maple syrup? It’s thick, sweet, and inviting, and when it’s warmed up by the heat of your pancakes, waffles, or fried chicken, there’s nothing quite like it. Maple syrup—the real McCoy, not that thin, overly sugary, artificial flavoring–added stuff—is a delight. Breakfast shouldn’t get all the fun, and brewers know that. However, it’s a fickle ingredient, and using the right amount and adding it at the right time is key.
Sean Lawson, founder and brewer at Vermont’s Lawson’s Finest Liquids offers this advice: “The easiest way to add maple syrup to a homebrew is to simply add the syrup at the end of the boil. Usage varies greatly from a cup (237 ml) or two (473 ml) per 5-gallon (19 l) batch to as much as a half gallon (1.9 l). Use less for a beer that is lighter in color and/or lower in alcohol; use more for a darker and/or higher-alcohol beer,” he says.
“Homebrewers who want to spend the extra time and effort to add additional maple notes to their beer might consider an addition into secondary fermentation (before the beer has finished attenuating). I’ve also successfully used maple syrup for priming beer in bottles, kegs, and cask. Use just a little bit less than corn sugar.”
This recipe from The Homebrewer’s Almanac: A Seasonal Guide to Making Your Own Beer from Scratch by Aaron Kleidon, Marika Josephson, and Ryan Tockstein is used with permission of the brewery and the publisher (The Countryman Press). You’ll need 10 gallons (37.8 liters) of maple sap.
Batch Size: 5 gallons (19 liters)
Brewhouse efficiency: 73%
10.5 lb (4.76 kg) Marris Otter
1.25 lb (567 g) crystal 80°L
1.25 lb (567 g) chocolate malt
HOPS AND ADDITION SCHEDULE
1 oz (28 g) Chinook at 60 minutes
8 oz (227 g) toasted maple bark at 60 minutes
Mash in with 5 gallons (19 liters) of maple sap to hit 150°F (66°C). Sparge with 7 gallons (26.5 liters) of maple sap at 168°F (75°C). Boil for 90 minutes, following the hops and additions schedule, with a 15-minute whirlpool at flameout. After the boil, chill the wort, aerate it, and pitch the yeast. Ferment at 68°F (20°C) until primary fermentation is almost complete, then raise the temperature above 70°F (21°C) until fermentation is finished.