Birch beer is one of the oldest soft drinks in the country. This sweet, carbonated drink is often compared to root beer, but they are not the same. Learn the difference between birch beer and root beer, plus our secret to making refreshing PA Dutch Birch Beer at home.
What is PA Dutch Birch Beer?
Birch beer is a non-alcoholic, carbonated soft drink made from essential oils of tree bark. Its origin dates back to the 1700s — potentially earlier, as the first written record of the beverage was 1707 in John Mortimer’s, The Whole Art of Husbandry, in the way of Managing and Improving of Land.
Though there are plenty of flavor varieties, birch beer is usually described as having a crisp, minty bite. Yet it’s refreshingly sweet with subtle, earthy flavors of cinnamon or vanilla. Depending on the type of bark used, it can be red, brown, blue, clear, or white in color.
It was originally created as a medicinal tea remedy and went through several iterations until it developed into the soft drink we’re familiar with today.
History of Birch Beer
When birch beer was first created, it actually was an alcoholic drink. It was brewed and fermented at home by colonists who couldn’t afford imported alcohol. Though the alcohol level was low, the earliest version of birch beer gave colonists the same “high” of costly imported alcohol.
It didn’t hit the commercial market until after the prohibition, however. And its rise to popularity was influenced by root beer’s marketing success.
When soda and carbonated drinks became popular in the late 1800s, they were marketed as having curative properties. It became important that these drinks were made without alcohol.
Charles Elmer Hires began selling “root tea” as a cure for all well-known diseases in 1876. He quickly changed the name to “root beer” because he knew beer was the preferred drink of choice at the time. William Boylan followed that same model 15 years later with his birch beer campaign.
Both were considered delicious alternatives for medicinal tinctures and healing potions which led to their popularity. Plus, having “beer” in their names helped their businesses stay afloat when the prohibition banned the production and sale of alcohol, so in a way, the prohibition paved the way for birch beer’s commercial success.
Root Beer vs. PA Dutch Birch Beer: Key Differences
Though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, birch beer and root beer are not the same drink.
The main difference between these beverages in birch beer is made with birch bark, and root oil is the primary ingredient in root beer. Originally, manufacturers used the root oil from the sassafras plant, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has since banned it for being linked to cancer.
Today, root beer can be made from the root oil of just about any other plant, the most popular options being acacia, licorice root, wintergreen root, ginger, or cloves.
In addition, birch beer uses strictly natural ingredients. While root beer manufacturers may add some additional oils and herbs to enhance the flavor, birch beer contains no root extracts. All ingredients are collected from the wild.
Though it’s subtle, the taste between the two is slightly different. They are both sweet and minty, but birch beer’s flavor is more complex. Depending on the root oil used, the taste of root beer might vary from brand to brand; but there’s less variability in the flavor of birch beer across brands because it’s always made from sweet birch bark.
This is what elevates PA Dutch birch beer over root beer for some soda drinkers. With the exception of intentional variations in flavor, you’ll always know what to expect when cracking open some birch beer. The same can’t be said for root beer.
Oddly enough, the popularity of these drinks is unique to different regions around the country. In the US, birch beer is most popular in the eastern states, especially northeastern states like Maine, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
While the market for birch beer isn’t restricted to these areas, it is seemingly more popular in the northeastern states because this is primarily where sweet birch trees grow. It’s easy for manufacturers to produce and distribute to these states because awareness of birch beer is higher.
Root beer can be made from the root oil of just about any plant, so its popularity tends to be universal across the US. It’s also available outside of the US in the United Kingdom, Australia, and some Asian countries.
Birch Beer Recipe
Want to learn how to make birch beer at home? It’s actually much simpler than you might think. There are two ways to make this sweet, carbonated drink at home: the traditional method and the modern method.
The Traditional Method
If you live in an area where birch trees grow, you can try brewing your own birch beer using the traditional method. Here’s what you’ll need:
- Birch saplings (enough to fill 1 Gallon of space)
- 4 gallons of water
- Bottle of carbonated water
- 2 cups of honey (sugar or molasses work, too)
Step 1) Start by harvesting your saplings. Look for young, new-growth twigs. Remove any leaves and then cut the twigs into small, one-inch pieces.
Step 2) Next, you’ll need to extract the sap. Place your twigs in a large pot and fill with water until covered. Bring to a boil, remove from the heat, and let the pot cool overnight. The saplings will release their flavor into the water as they soak. The next morning, you’ll notice that some of the water evaporated. This is normal! Bring the remaining contents back to just under a boil and simmer for 3 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Step 3) Then you’ll need to prepare your birch syrup. Strain the sap water using a sieve or coffee filter, making sure that no saplings pass through the strainer. Pour the sap water into a saucepan and add a sweetener of your choice. Historically, honey was used to sweeten the birch syrup, but you can use sugar or molasses, too. Bring the contents of your pan to a simmer until all of the sweetener is dissolved. Remove it from the heat and allow it to cool.
Step 4) The final step is to carbonate your birch syrup. Mix equal parts of the syrup with equal parts of your carbonated water and shake well. Pour over ice and enjoy!
The Modern Method
If you don’t live in an area where you can harvest birch twigs on your own, you can still make this beverage at home with some materials from the store. Here’s what you’ll need:
- Birch oil
- Dry Yeast or Carbonated water
Step 1) You’ll start by infusing a bowl of water with a few drops of birch oil. This will be the base of your birch beer. To make your syrup, you’ll combine the birch water with a sweetener in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and allow it to cool.
Step 2) If you’d like to consume your birch beer right away, we recommend using carbonated water instead of yeast to carbonate your birch syrup. Just like the traditional method, you’ll combine equal amounts of birch syrup and carbonated water, shake well, and serve over ice.
Step 3) If you opt for using dry yeast, your birch beer will need to ferment for up to 36 hours in a cool, dark place. Check the carbonation level after 36 hours. If it’s not as carbonated as you’d like, let it sit for another 12 to 24 hours. When it reaches the level of your liking, you’ll want the mixture to chill in the refrigerator for at least two days before consuming it.
Keep in mind, the shelf life of birch beer using dry yeast is only about a month. If you make your birch beer using carbonated water, it can be safely consumed for up to three or four months after being made.
Where To Buy Birch Beer
In the northeastern states, birch beer can be purchased at most grocery stores and select commercial stores. You might also find bottles or soft drinks at Amish farmers’ markets in your area.
Some of the most popular brands are
- Pennsylvania Dutch Birch Beer: the most popular brand of commercial birch beer, sold in regular and diet versions.
- Boylan’s Birch Beer: made in New Jersey with original and red, vanilla flavored varieties.
- Kutztown Birch Beer: made in Kutztown, PA, sold in black cherry flavor.