Black birch tea was one of the first wild foods I ever tried. Some high school friends boiled pots of birch twigs to make what they called “brew” while telling jokes and stories over the campfire. I always thought that the brew tasted like little more than slightly bitter hot water, and it is indeed easy to make a bland tea of the black birch, but I have since learned to make a much tastier beverage that can be had by anyone willing to steep with care.
I have brewed tea most often from twigs of the black birch (Betula lenta), but northern foragers may be more likely to find its cousin, the yellow birch (B. alleghaniensis). Both trees make a fine drink at any time of year, but I am most drawn to them in winter, when other foraging opportunities are few, and they become contenders for the tastiest plants in the landscape. (They are far superior to other wild-tree teas, such as pine and spruce.) Black birch is easily distinguished from the similar-looking (and toxic) cherries by the fresh, wintergreen odor that the twigs release when scratched.
I harvest a slim branch with a pair of garden shears the day before I want to enjoy the tea. It is the twigs I want, so if the tree is in leaf I strip the leaves off by running it through my fingers. Then I use the shears to clip the branch into six-inch segments and stuff them into a half-gallon canning jar. And here we come to the first mistake of the novice forager: using too few twigs. I stuff my jar until no more will fit.
The wintergreen flavor of the birch tree is imparted by methyl salicylate, an organic compound that is easily vaporized. That’s why birch tea is so aromatic, but it is also why it’s so finicky to brew. Twigs must be fresh. Flavor is lost after only a day or two. And, most important, your brewing water cannot be too hot. This is the second mistake of the novice. If you add boiling water to the twigs, you will literally evaporate their flavor. I boil water in a kettle and allow it to cool for about 15 minutes before pouring it over the twigs. After sealing the container, I steep it overnight. Unlike the teas of most herbs, which become bitter when left to steep for more than a few minutes, too short a steep here results in a flavorless tea.
I have often enjoyed birch tea cold, but in winter I prefer to gently reheat the brew and savor the sweet smells, warm my fingers on the mug, and remember the friends who first introduced me to this aromatic winter delight.