Brewing With Birch

Brewing With Birch

The green refreshing scent of birch is the ultimate spring aroma for me. When I start a fireplace with birchwood I’d call that the perfect campfire aroma. Extracting these wonderful flavors and aromas into beer has become almost an obsession for me. This is a guide for brewing beer with birch branches, leaves, buds, bark, sap, and wood.

I have homebrewed since 1998 and experimented with birch-flavored beer since the early 2010s. My first experiments with birch beers were promising but didn’t produce classics that I would like to drink again and again. When I started to apply techniques that I had used for juniper branches in Nordic farmhouse ales, I was able to brew a beer with outstanding birch flavor. Now my birch beers are classics of my home brewery, along with my juniper beers.

Birch is rarely sold for brewing beer. Birch leaves are sold for making herbal teas and can be used for beer as well but branches, bark or sap can be difficult to find if birch doesn’t grow near you. I’m sure these brewing techniques work for various other edible leafy trees as well, such as alder, but I haven’t yet tested them for other trees.

Note: If you google “birch beer” you’ll mostly find information about a birch-flavored soft drink made without grains. This guide is about flavoring a malt-based beer with birch.

Mika Laitinen brewing birch-flavored  beer.
For me forest is a church and infusing forest flavors into beer is worshipping. Juniper and birch are my favorite forest flavors in beer. Here I’m brewing an ale from birch branches, birch bark and birch-smoked malt, and I’m drinking sahti from a birch tankard. Photo by Mari Varonen.

Other Resources

Surprisingly little has been written about brewing with birch, apart from sap or bark based soft drinks. Brewing a proper malt beer with birch bark is mentioned in the book The Homebrewer’s Almanac (Josephson et al, 2016) but that’s about what I have found.

Most of my beer birching techniques are based on my experiences with juniper and other coniferous trees, see my article Brewing With Juniper, Spruce, Fir, and Pine. My juniper brewing techniques on the other hand owe much to farmhouse brewing techniques. I highly recommend exploring the fascinating world of traditional farmhouse brewing, as documented in my book Viking Age Brew: The Craft of Brewing Sahti Farmhouse Ale. Lars Marius Garshol’s Historical Brewing Techniques. Garshol’s book has an excellent section about the traditional birch sap beer (fermented sap drink, not a grain-based beer).

I have obtained plenty of information about birch from foraging books and I’ll mention many of my favorite books throughout the article.

I have tasted two commercial Finnish beers flavored with birch branches or leaves (Prykmestar Suvi and Karhu Saunaolut). These are decent brews but I haven’t tried to copy their brewing techniques. I feel that my birch beer tastes far better and my techniques are better too, at least on a homebrewing scale. Lithuanian brewery Dundulis has brewed fascinating birch-flavor beers and I mention some of them below.

Why Birch-Flavored Beer?

In my opinion, the birch flavor is fantastic and pairs extremely well with the malt. The flavor is somewhat difficult to explain for those who haven’t walked in a birch forest or sniffed burning birchwood. For me, the aroma of leaves and branches is very green and refreshing. Some noble hops remind me of birch leaves, especially German Spalt Select.

The admiration of birch aromas is in my genes. Here in central Finland birch grows everywhere and it is the best-valued firewood. In addition to the fantastic forest scent, birch reminds me of the wonderful aromas of a traditional Finnish wood-fired sauna.

I’m not sure what people living far from birch forests think about birch flavor but perhaps you have some special (edible) tree in your area that can be used the same way as I use birch? Perhaps you have a tree aroma that you would like to bottle? If so, this guide has many useful tips for you!

Birch tastes perfect in beer when the flavor is noticeable yet remains delicate and in balance with other flavors. Strong birch flavor will dominate the beer and make it one-dimensional, just like overdone oak-aging. For this reason, it is crucial to get the birch amounts right. I have done plenty of brewing experiments to find the right dosages and all instructions and recipes below aim for delicate to moderate birch flavor.

Finnish men bathing in a smoke sauna with birch whisks. Photo courtesy of Helsinki City Museum.
Finns love birch aroma also because of the traditional sauna. The wood-fired sauna is often heated with birch and alder. Birch whisks have been used to increase the effectiveness of the steam and as a sponge to whip the dirt off. Needless to say, this kind of sauna has a lovely aroma of birch! I still enjoy this kind of sauna and birching occasionally but I don’t have a good photo of it. This old photo courtesy of the Helsinki City Museum (unknown photographer) captures the mood perfectly.

Overview of Beer Birching Techniques

Birch provides several fantastic beer ingredients: leaves, branches, buds, bark, wood, and sap. Consequently, also the techniques for extracting the birch flavor vary. In this article, I advocate these flavoring techniques:

  • Fresh branches with leaves are my favorite birch beer ingredient. I like to infuse the branches in hot water and add this infusion into the mash or wort.
  • Dried birch leaves are sold for herbal teas and these can be added to the wort.
  • Birch bark adds a deep woody umami flavor, somewhat similar to black tea. The bark can be also toasted for a nuttier flavor. I like to infuse the bark into a small amount of hot water and add that to the wort.
  • Birch buds (the small first leaves) are highly aromatic. I like to infuse these buds into alcohol to spike beer at bottling or kegging.
  • Birch wood can be used for smoking malt or unmalted grains.
  • Birch sap can be used as a brew liquor.
Keptinis farmhouse beer brewing demonstration in Lithuania at Sekminiu Sambariai festival 2022
Birch has been rarely used in traditional or modern brewing. I find it surprising because birch has such a fine flavor and traditional farmhouse brewing techniques work very well for extracting that flavor. I found soul mates from Lithuania: at the Sekminių Sambariai festival 2022, a traditional farmhouse ale was sparged with a birch branch infusion.

Birch Species

Two birch species grow in my area in Central Finland: silver birch (Betula pendula, rauduskoivu in Finnish) and downy birch (Betula pubescens, hieskoivu in Finnish). For brewing purposes, these species are very similar and I use them interchangeably. I have no experience with other birch species.

Finnish chef and wild herb specialist Sami Tallberg mentions that the silver birch leaves usually taste stronger than downy birch leaves (Tallberg, 2013, Villiyrttikeittokirja). In my experience, the location and the age of the birch tree make a bigger difference than the species. I always taste the leaves from every tree that I forage from.

Both species are widely used in folk medicine in Northern Europe and Russia. For example, herbal tea brewed from the leaves is high in antioxidants and listed for dozens of health benefits (Piippo 2017, Elinvoimaa puista, a book in Finnish, translates as Vitality from Trees).

The softer early summer leaves can be eaten as a salad. The inner bark of birch has been used for food during famines. The leaves have been used for flavoring vodka.

All my sources (books on foraging, botany, and cooking) list silver and downy birches as safe plants to eat but birch can cause allergies to some. USDA lists silver birch as nontoxic (no toxicity data for downy birch). Therefore, I feel safe brewing with the leaves, branches, bark, and sap of silver birch and downy birch.

Birch trees in central Finland
Birch forests with white trunks and enchanting aromas are magical places. Wherever birch grows, indigenous people have used the wood, branches, bark, and sap in a very versatile manner. This forest is near my house and includes both downy and silver birch, along with alder, rowan, pine and spruce.

Obtaining Birch

This guide is mostly for brewers who can either forage or source local birch. For those who want to buy birch for brewing, dried birch leaves are probably the best option.

This is how I forage birch:

  • I forage branches with leaves throughout the summer. Lithuanian brewer and beer expert Simonas Gutautas told me that the early summer leaves are more bitter and the flavor gets mellower towards the end of summer. The branches and leaves can be frozen or dried for long-term storage. Both work, but I prefer fresh freezing.
  • I harvest the early buds in springtime as soon as the leaves open. I infuse them into vodka which stores the flavor well.
  • I haven’t collected birch sap but you have no difficulties in finding information about tapping a birch for sap. In Finland, the sap season is in March and April.

Brewing With Birch Branches

When I want the best refreshing birch flavor, I brew with fresh birch branches. 1–4 liters of branches (measured uncompressed) for a twenty-liter batch (1–4 quarts for five gallons) is a good starting point. One liter is like a delicate spice while two liters create a noticeable yet not aggressive flavor. For high gravity brews and bold beers, you need four liters or more.

Birch branches have two flavor components: the leaves and the wood. Boiling the branches is suboptimal because the boil would destroy the finer aromatics of leaves. Adding the branches at the end of the boil is suboptimal too because the woody part benefits from longer infusions below the boiling point. I have obtained the best flavor by infusing the birch branches in hot water, as with juniper branches.

I have used two different infusion techniques. The brewing water birch infusion is similar to juniper infusion for traditional Nordic and Baltic farmhouse ales: the infusion is used for mashing and sparging and hence the technique is better suited for no-boil raw ales. Then I developed the late wort infusion technique to avoid boiling off flavors when the wort is boiled.

Brewing Water Birch Infusion

This is how you create an infusion for mashing and sparging:

Heat enough water for mashing to 80ºC (176ºF). Add the branches into the water and let infuse for at least two hours. Keep the infusion in the temperature range of 60–80ºC (140–176ºF). After mashing in, add more hot water onto the branches to make a second infusion for sparging.

Birch branches and bark infused in hot water, for brewing birch-flavored beer.
Brewing water birch infusion, including both birch branches and toasted bark. I’m brewing a sahti-like raw ale and all brewing liquor is birch infusion. You’ll find the recipe below.

Late Wort Birch Infusion

Another option is to make a concentrated birch infusion and then mix it with the wort:

Put the birch branches into a lidded vessel and add enough 80ºC (176ºF) water to cover the branches. You need roughly one volume of water for one volume of branches. Cover the vessel and let steep for at least one hour. When the wort has been chilled below 80ºC (176ºF), combine the wort and the infusion (both the liquid and the branches). Either pour the infusion into the wort while chilling or chill the wort completely and then mix the wort and the infusion.

birch branches for brewing beer
My fermenter with enough fresh birch branches for brewing 25 liters of ale. I’m pouring a small amount of hot water onto these branches and let them infuse for about an hour, before draining the wort into the fermenter.

The idea is to give the branches enough heat and time without boiling off the aromatics or diluting the wort too much. This infusion technique is excellent for boiled-wort ales but works well for raw ales too (I haven’t yet compared the two techniques for raw ales).

When you combine the wort and the infusion, add also the branches so that the flavor extraction continues in the wort. You can either filter out the branches before fermentation or ferment with the branches.

I believe leaving the branches into fermenting wort aids in the flavor extraction and I haven’t noticed any negative effects. The method is similar to dip hopping where the wort is combined with hop tea and then the beer ferments on hops. I also brew herbal raw ales beer with a similar method.

So far I have scooped the branches off the next day when the fermentation is active. I haven’t tested what happens if the branches sit in the fermenter until kegging or bottling. Does the prolonged contact time extract tannins?

So, the late wort infusion technique comes with plenty of options and therefore may sound complicated. Fear not, the method is very simple and flexible. The options allow you to adapt the method to your brewing gear and ideology. The following two examples will clarify the idea.

Example 1: One hour before wort chilling, I make the birch infusion in a small kettle. I start chilling the wort with an immersion chiller and once the wort is below 80ºC (176ºF) I pour the infusion along with branches into the kettle. When the wort has been chilled, I drain the wort into the fermenter and the branches are left behind in the kettle with the trub.

Example 2: I have a bucket-type stainless steel fermenter so that I can prepare the infusion in the fermenter. One hour before running the wort into the fermenter, I add birch branches into the fermenter, pour in 80ºC (176ºF) water, and seal the fermenter. When the wort has been chilled, I transfer it into the fermenter on top of the branches and pitch yeast. The next day when the beer is fermenting, I scoop the branches off.

Birch branches and bark in a fermenting beer
My birch ale, fermenting with birch branches and toasted birch bark. Now the branches and the bark have been infusing in the wort and beer for 15 hours and I’m scooping them off from the top of beer.

Brewing With Birch Bark

In Finland, birch bark has been used for myriads of things but rarely for brewing. Brewing with birch bark was completely new to me until I read The Homebrewer’s Almanac (Josephson et al. 2016). The homebrewer’s Almanac contains instructions for brewing with maple bark and mentions birch bark only briefly. The instructions below are mostly based on my brewing tests.

So far I have used the birch bark from dried firewood. If you brew with the bark from fresh undried birch you might need to modify the instructions below, especially the amounts and toasting time. Note: a living tree needs its bark. Strip bark from a living tree only if it is destined to be cut down.

Birch bark for brewing birch-flavored beer. Comparison of raw and toasted birch bark.
Birch bark before (left) and after toasting (right). The bark was toasted at 175ºC (350ºF) for 10 minutes.

When I brew with birch bark, I cut the bark with a knife from firewood logs. Then I either use the raw bark or toast the bark in a kitchen oven for a different kind of flavor. On a brew day, I infuse the bark in hot water and add this infusion to the wort.

The birch bark infusion has a very complex woody aroma and flavor, somewhat similar to Chaga mushroom tea or black tea. The raw bark tastes more mushroomy. The toasted version, tastes, well, more toasty and less mushroomy. I’m sure both versions have their place in brewing but the toasted bark is perhaps easier to match with beer. I would add bark to all kinds of dark ales where woody flavors match the beer.

Start experiments with 3–8 g of bark (from dry wood measured before toasting) per liter of ale. Process the bark before brewing:

Carve out thick slices of bark from birchwood. Include both the outer bark and the next porous layer (phloem) before wood. When toasting, pre-heat your kitchen oven to 175ºC (350ºF) and toast the bark at this temperature for 10–15 minutes. The bark should turn darker (the inner bark turns chestnut brown) but should not look burned.

On the brew day, make the birch bark infusion as with birch branches:

Put the birch bark into a lidded vessel and add enough 80ºC (176ºF) water to cover the bark slices. Cover the vessel and let steep for at least one hour. Either pour the infusion (both liquid and the bark) into the wort while chilling (when the wort drops below 80ºC (176ºF)) or chill the wort completely and then mix the wort and the infusion.

Flavor infusion from toasted birch bark.

Smoking Grains With Birchwood

I love starting a fireplace with birchwood because it creates the absolutely best campfire smoke aroma. However, a big part of this fantastic aroma comes from birch bark. The bark is usually removed before smoking because it creates plenty of soot.

Birch is the favorite firewood in Finland but alder is much more popular for smoking fish. In northern Finland, reindeer meat is smoked with birch.

For smoking malt, alder is my favorite but occasionally I like to smoke with birch as well. Birch gives a slightly sharper smoke flavor than alder and hence I prefer moderate amounts of birch-smoked malt, like 10-20 % share of the malt. When I smoke with birch I cut chips from debarked firewood. This gives a straightforward smoke flavor yet I can easily recognize when malt has been smoked with birch.

Smoking malt with birch chips in an electric smoker.
I usually smoke food and malt with this electric smoker. One smoking gives only 0.7 kg of malt but I get a stronger smoke flavor than in most commercial wood-smoked malts. Therefore, this amount is usually enough for a 20-liter batch.

Brewing With Birch Sap

Nordic people have drank the fresh sap and made a fermented drink from it. If you want to know more, I recommend reading the section Birch Sap Beer from the book Historical Brewing Techniques (Garshol 2020). In Finland fermented sap was called mahlakalja (translates as sap ale or sap beer), a craft now forgotten. As far as I know, brewing a proper malt-based beer with birch sap hasn’t been a tradition in the Nordic countries.

I haven’t brewed with birch sap but I have tasted the sap and beers brewed with it. The birch sap flavor is so delicate that nearly all your brew liquor should be birch sap if you want the flavor to come through. In my opinion, birch sap is more useful for drinking as such or as a cooking ingredient.

Recipes

The following recipes are classics of my home brewery that I like to drink and brew again and again. All these beers taste fantastic even without birch. Adding birch creates a special enchanting forest mood.

Springtime Ale Birch Edition

This brew is inspired by Belgian blonde ales. It is built on the firm taste of pilsner malt and characterful yeast. A delicate yet noticeable flavor of birch branches or leaves fits in extremely well.

Usually, I harvest and freeze the birch leaves during summer so that I can brew this ale in March or April before birch leaves appear. When the birch leaves begin to bud, I already have birch ale in the glass. Note: you need to take into account that the birch infusion will dilute your wort. Brew a slightly stronger wort so that you end with the original gravity of 1.060 after you have combined the wort and the birch infusion.

This ale requires yeast with a fruity and/or spicy character. Voss-type kveiks, Lithuanian farmhouse yeasts (such as Simonaitis), and most Belgian yeasts are good for this ale. I like this beer with a moderate attenuation and some residual sweetness so I would rule out the most attenuative saison-type yeasts.

A delicate herbal hopping supports the birch flavor. Any herbal noble-like hop will do, for example Spalt Select, Saaz, Tettnager as well as the herbal New Word varieties such as Mount Hood. Steer away from bold IPA hops.

Brewing Nordic Springtime Ale brewed with birch branches.
Nordic springtime means recovery from the winter and the rebirth of flourishing green nature. My springtime ale expresses the mood perfectly.

Springtime Ale Birch Edition – Recipe for 20 Liters

Original gravity: 1.060
Final gravity: 1.012
Alcohol by volume: 6.5 %
IBU: 25

Ingredients:
5.0 kg Pilsner malt (85 %)
0.6 kg Spelt, rye or wheat malt (10 %)
0.3 kg Biscuit or Abbey malt (5 %)
Bittering hops for 25 IBU
25 g flavor hops (herbal variety)
1.5 liters of birch branches
Kveik, Lithuanian farmhouse yeast or Belgian yeast

Mash at 65°C (149°F) for 60 minutes. Boil the wort for 75 minutes and bittering hops for 60 minutes. Prepare the late wort birch infusion as advised above an hour before chilling. Add the flavor hops five minutes before the end of the boil.

Add the birch infusion either to the wort while chilling or to the chilled wort. Filter out the birch branches with the trub or ferment the ale with the branches. Usually I leave the branches into fermenter but scoop them off the next day of fermentation.

Ferment at a temperature that promotes firm fermentation flavors (with Voss kveik or Simonaitis I usually ferment this ale at 30–35°C (86–95°F) ). Bottle or keg with moderate to firm carbonation. For bottle-conditioning, I recommend 5 grams of table sugar per liter of ale.

Raw Springtime Ale Birch Edition

This is the raw no-boil version of my springtime ale. Skipping the boil makes this ale more cereal-like with a smoother mouthfeel. If you are unfamiliar with raw ales I recommend reading my guide Brewing Modern Raw Ales.

I have converted the boiled-wort recipe to a no-boil recipe with these modifications:

  • I have written the recipe for the brewing water birch infusion (mashing and sparging with the infusion). Late wort birch infusion (condensed infusion added to the wort) would work as well.
  • The amount of birch branches can be slightly bumped up.
  • I use the two-step mashing scheme similar to the raw pale ale recipe in Raw Ale Brewing Techniques and Recipes.
  • I aim at slightly higher finishing gravity than with boiled-wort springtime ale. For this reason, the mashing-in temperature is higher. Using slightly less attenuative yeast helps too.
  • The bitterness comes from hop tea (see Raw Ale Brewing Techniques and Recipes). I aim at lower IBU because raw ales need less bitterness.
  • With hopped raw ales, I like to add flavor hops to the wort without attempting to sieve them out before fermentation. If you want to harvest yeast from this batch, I recommend skimming at least part of the hop matter off when they rise to the top.
  • In my opinion, raw ales are better with smoother carbonation.
Raw ale brewed with birch branches.
The raw version of my springtime ale tastes more summery than the original. More fresh aromas of cereals, leafy trees, and haymaking. Perhaps I should call this version Early Summer Ale?

Raw Springtime Ale Birch Edition – Recipe for 20 Liters

Original gravity: 1.060
Final gravity: 1.012-1.015
Alcohol by volume: 6–6.5 %
IBU: 15

Ingredients:
5.0 kg Pilsner malt (85 %)
0.6 kg Spelt, rye or wheat malt (10 %)
0.3 kg Biscuit or Abbey malt (5 %)
Bittering hops for 15 IBU (hop tea)
25 g flavor hops (herbal variety)
1.5–2 liters of birch branches
Kveik, Lithuanian farmhouse yeast or Belgian yeast

Prepare the brewing water birch infusion as advised above. Make hop tea from bittering hops as in Raw Ale Brewing Techniques and Recipes.

Using the birch infusion as mash liquor, mash at 66–68°C (151–154°F) for one hour. Add also the hop tea to the mash. Once you have mashed in, add more hot water onto the branches to make a birch infusion for sparging.

Raise the mash to 75–78°C (167–172°F) for 30 minutes. Begin lautering, and recirculate until the wort runs clear. Add the flavor hops to the hot wort as soon as you start collecting it. Sparge with 75–78°C (167–172°F) birch infusion until you have collected 20 liters.

Chill the wort to fermentation temperature and pitch yeast. Let ferment completely and bottle or keg when most yeast has flocculated. Smooth carbonation similar to cask-conditioned ale is perfect for this beer. For bottle-conditioning, I recommend 3.5 grams of table sugar per liter of ale.

Birch Bark Porter

The base beer for this is my Wintertime Ale that I brew every year for the winter season, each time with a different variation, such as birch, juniper, smoke, or rye (see Brewing With Rye for my rye porter recipe).

I aim at a smooth and gently roasted porter. For yeast, I recommend neutral or moderately fruity ale yeast or kveik. British and American ale yeast is fine. Espe or Hornindal kveiks are good. Voss-type kveik works too if you ferment at moderate temperatures (20–25°C, 68–77°F).

Nordic winters are absolutely gorgeous but also very cold and dark. It feels like Sauron is trying to swallow the sun. A warming birch bark porter is perfect for the season.

Birch Bark Porter – Recipe for 20 Liters

Original gravity: 1.065 (15.9ºP)
Final gravity: 1.018 (4.8ºP)
Alcohol by volume: 6.2 %
IBU: 30

Ingredients:
5.4 kg Pale ale malt (84 % of malt)
0.625 kg Amber malt (10 %)
0.25 kg Chocolate malt (4 %)
0.125 kg Black malt (2 %)
Bitterness hops for 30 IBU
100 g toasted birch bark
Kveik or ale yeast (neutral or moderately fruity)

Mash at 65°C (149°F) for 60 minutes. Boil the wort for 75 minutes and bittering hops for 60 minutes.

Prepare the birch bark infusion as advised above an hour before chilling. Add the infusion either to the wort while chilling or to the chilled wort. Filter out the bark with trub or ferment the ale with the bark.

Ferment at a temperature that gives a neutral or moderately fruity fermentation character. Bottle or keg with smooth to moderate carbonation. For bottle conditioning, I recommend 4 grams of table sugar per liter of ale.

Birch Søhti

Birch is not a traditional ingredient for sahti but replacing juniper infusion with birch infusion makes a fantastic sahti-inspired ale. I refer to this ale as søhti with the Scandinavian ø character because it isn’t sahti in the most traditional sense. See Is Kveik Authentic Yeast for Sahti? for the definition of traditional sahti.

You can make the infusion either from birch branches or bark, or both. Take either your favorite sahti recipe or start with my Sahti Recipe and Farmhouse Brewing Tips and leave out the juniper. Instead of juniper make the brewing water birch infusion as advised above. For a 20-liter batch, brew with either or both of these:

  • 4 liters of birch branches
  • 160 g of toasted birch bark

If you mix both, reduce the amounts correspondingly (for example, infuse 2 liters of branches and 80 g of bark).

sahti-like beer flavored with birch branches and bark
My birch søhti brewed with branches and toasted bark. Green and woody birch pairs extremely well with sweet and sturdy sahti-like raw ale.

References

Garshol, Lars Marius. Historical Brewing Techniques: The Lost Art of Farmhouse Brewing. Brewers Publictions, 2020.

Josephson, Marika, Aaron Kleidon, and Ryan Tockstein. The Homebrewer’s Almanac: A Seasonal Guide to Making Your Own Beer from Scratch. Countryman Press, 2016.

Laitinen, Mika. Viking Age Brew: The Craft of Brewing Sahti Farmhouse Ale. Chicago Review Press, 2019.

NatureGate. A web site devoted to identifying and finding information about wild plants, birds, butterflies, and fishes.

Piippo, Sinikka: Elinvoimaa puista, Minerva, 2017. In Finnish, a book about health benefits of trees, written by a Finnish professor of botany.

Tallberg, Sami: Villiyrttikeittokirja. Readme.fi, 2013. In Finnish, a book about foraging and cooking with wild herbs and trees.

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