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What Is Birch Beer?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Birch beer is a beverage fairly similar to American root beer or sarsaparilla, which is flavored primarily with sap or oil from birch trees that is distilled and added to other ingredients. The drink is typically carbonated and is a soft drink, though alcoholic versions are available in some regions. Often found mostly in specific regions of the United States (US), such as Pennsylvania, the drink is not necessarily popular in larger markets, though many regions also have other local types of “root beers” that involve other types of plants, herbs, or similar ingredients.

A birch is a type of tree found commonly throughout North America, with numerous varieties and species ranging from smaller shrubs to tall trees. The bark from birch trees can be removed and used to extract essential oils, which are then typically used as flavoring. Similarly, the sap from the birch trees can be used instead, though it is usually also processed and distilled down to a more workable state.

Birch beer is fairly common and quite popular in regions of the US such as Pennsylvania, where it is has been made and enjoyed for more than 70 years. A number of different companies produce beverages that can be found in various grocery stores and markets, though with the proliferation of the Internet and express shipping, these products can also be acquired online. Each company uses slightly different processes and added ingredients to its birch beers, giving them different flavors and allowing tasters to experience unique beverages from each company.

The oil extracted from the birch trees is typically the primary ingredient in flavoring, though other ingredients such as cloves, honey, and cinnamon can be added for enhanced flavor. Traditionally, different colors were created based on the type of birch tree used for extraction of the oil that went into the beer. These included red, brown, and clear or white, although some modern manufacturers may add artificial colors to create specific varieties.

A number of other beverages can also be created by adding other ingredients to birch beer. Similar to a root beer float, vanilla ice cream can be added to birch beer to create a drink often referred to as a “red bull.” Chocolate ice cream can be added to dark birch beer or root beer to create an ice cream soda called a “black cow.”

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Discussion Comments

By anon245264 — On Feb 04, 2012

Birch beer is traditionally made from black birch, not white or paper birch. It is regional to the Northeastern United States, with Pennsylvania being just about its southernmost border. It is available in clear (white), brown, red, and other colors with regional favorites.

Extracts are available from suppliers, as are yeasts, if the alcoholic version is desired.

By umbra21 — On Aug 04, 2011

@browncoat - I think root beer might be more difficult to brew than birch beer, although I've never tried either of them.

I wanted to brew root beer at one point though and did some research on it. The reason it's got a reputation for being difficult is that some of the traditional ingredients were shown to be carcinogenic. So, you have to use root beer extract to make it, because they have to synthesize the taste.

Birch beer doesn't have that problem, so I imagine it is relatively straightforward.

On the other hand, I think that if you check whole food stores in your area, they might stock it anyway.

By browncoat — On Aug 04, 2011

I'd love to try some birch beer but I don't think it would be available in my area, since it seems to be a very regional drink. I really like craft brewed root beer though, so I imagine I would like this stuff too.

I know rootbeer is quite difficult to make from scratch though, and is almost always made with an extract, so I guess I'll just have to wait until the next time I'm in a birch beer making area.

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