18 March, 2011

Russian Soft Drinks 4: Birch Juice

Here in the Northeast, when the sap starts running at the break of winter into spring, we tend to think of maple trees and maple syrup.  In Eastern Europe, though, it's time to collect the sap of the birch tree.  Birch sap is a traditional beverage in Russia, where it's known as Берёзовый сок - birch juice or simply "juice" (сок.)  The flavor is hard to describe - faintly sweet, with the barest hint of wintergreen whispers and perhaps a bit of "green" flavor, a bit like leaves or grass.  Right now, with sap drawing in full swing, сок is relatively inexpensive and easy to find in Russian and Eastern European markets, but at other times of the year it can get expensive and more difficult to obtain.

Fresh сок is best if you can find it, but if not you may have to settle for the pasteurized variety. Pasteurization extends the shelf life of the drink (at the expense of a slight change in flavor, similar to the difference in fresh-pressed apple cider and pasteurized apple cider) but either way it's still delicious.  I was told by a Russian friend that drinking сок was "good for the blood."  I believe him because I want to and because I find it to be very quenching, but Eastern Europeans are quite insistent about the medicinal powers of birch juice. Here's a typical description of its properties from a Ukranian website:

Birch sap destroys urinary stones, is effective in treating ulcers of the stomach and duodenum, liver, gall bladder, headache, scurvy, bronchitis, coughs, and rheumatism, radiculitis, gout and arthritis, the body removes any harmful ballast harmful substances in infectious diseases. Useful it for skin diseases and inflammatory processes of different origin. In addition, berezovitsa clears blood-forming and has a regenerating effect and stimulates the exchange substances is also an excellent dietary and refreshing drink. Recently been found yet another feature of birch sap. It turns out that this is a good cure for impotence. Moreover, birch "tears" very bad effect on people during menopause. Doctors say that if you drink even a glass of juice a day, then disappear drowsiness, fatigue, irritability and other related phenomena.

As the number of Russians living in the US has grown, I've found other varieties of сок in the local ethnic markets, such as this variety with dogrose extract (giving it a more fruity and slightly floral taste) and another with extract of chamomile (which tastes a lot like tea, as you might expect.)

Before you go out and buy a gallon jar of it, I should warn you that birch juice might be considered an acquired taste, but since it's available in 1 litre tetra paks as well as in gallon jars, you can taste it inexpensively to see if you'd like it before you spring for a gallon.


Alan said...

Is this anything like the local drink called, "Birch Beer", a soft drink or soda version? Or is this entirely different?

Dave said...

Alan -

Birch juice is straight up sap from the birch tree, tapped and bottled (or consumed) straight from the tree. It's not a soda, and nothing at all like birch beer.

Think flavored water.

Michelle_Randy said...

Speaking of birch beer, we have a small store in town called Cravings, that sells some of the world's best popcorn, but also odd and regional sodas.

My husband got a bottle of Spruce Beer and loved it. To me, it was like drinking Pine-Sol - foul.