What Is Birch Beer?

If you are a native of Pennsylvania, or are pretty close to a native of the state, then you may have already heard of the mysterious Birch Beer that most Pennsylvanians will admit to being their favorite drink.

But, what is Birch Beer, is it actually beer, or something else? We did the research so you can finally be clued in on this regional classic drink. Find out what Birch Beer is, now, by reading our article below.

What Is Birch Beer

What Is Birch Beer?

You might be surprised to hear that Birch Beer isn’t actually beer at all, nor is it actually alcoholic. Then what is it? Well, Birch Beer is actually soda.

It’s made in a similar way to root beer or sarsaparilla, but does taste quite different. Its main ingredient is the bark of a birch tree, hence birch beer.

It’s also somewhat similar to beer in that it is somewhat fermented which brings its unique carbonation. Rather, the drink is made by boiling the bark of a birch tree, specifically the black birch also known as spice or sweet birch.

It’s important to note that birch beer is a type of soda, like lemonade, and isn’t a specific brand. So, there are often lots of brands of birch beer that often have slightly varying recipes, but do taste somewhat similar.

What Does Birch Beer Taste Like?

In a general sense, most people will suggest that Birch Beer tastes like Root Beer, this might be true for some but others would argue the taste is quite different.

Birch is a piney tree so the drink is light and refreshing as a result of the herbal extracts that are more common in something like herbal tea. 

Birch Beer is both spicy and minty but also effervescent. While root beer can taste quite strong and perhaps artificial in some cases, Birch Beer has a natural feel to it, and is pretty light in comparison.

Simply, you could suggest that Birch Beer tastes how birch often smells, piney, minty, menthol, but is super tasty.

You can serve birch beer like any other soda, preferably cold. Yet, you can do stuff like a coke float but with birch beer.

As birch beer is often darkly colored, although not always, in Pennsylvania a ‘black cow’ refers to a birch beer float with white ice cream.

History Of Birch Beer

Devised in the Prohibition era, the soda pop was often enjoyed in lieu of real beer or alcohol.

It’s similar to Sarsaparilla or root beer insofar that they were all basically non-alcoholic alternatives to the then outlawed alcoholic beverage.

Interestingly, the practice of making a type of soda from birch bark or sap can be dated back as far as 1676, which may surprise those from even Pennsylvania.

While the drink can be found in the neighboring states of Maryland and New York, the drink is associated greatly with eastern Pennsylvania where it is  more popular than root beer.

Before and after the Prohibition era where birch beer was pretty popular, it was often a way for poorer people to create and enjoy alcoholic beverages.

What Is Birch Beer (1)

Post prohibition era, alcohol was pretty expensive and was taxed, while birch  beer can be made basically for free should you know how to make it.

In this sense it is a bit of a country alcohol like moonshine, and often evokes people of their working class youths.

Kutztown has been known for making the birch beer of the past and if you go to Kutztown Folk Festival there are often demonstrations of people making lots of birch beer, and you can often buy and sample lots of varieties of birch beer.

You can get purposefully alcoholic birch beer (see also: Does Ginger Beer Have Alcohol?)too that has been allowed to ferment for longer and naturally become more alcoholic.

Why Is Birch Beer So Important To People?

You may have heard birch beer in the context of a regional rant about why it’s better than other drinks like root beer.

People often have these relations to things thanks to nostalgia. We all have memories of regional things we enjoyed as kids, whether that was the weather, the geography, or it might be a taste that just reminds us of home. 

Birch beer is like this for many people, it just tastes like ‘home’. As a result people get pretty heated up when someone might attack their favored drink or suggest that something like root beer is better.

Similarly, birch beer is a very Pennsylvanian export, and for many Pennsylvanians wear it as a badge of honor for their state.

Consider too that Pennsylvania is often shadowed by its neighboring state of New York. This occurs in many parts of the world where more rural, small communities feel overshadowed by the larger areas of a country.

As a result they can feel the need to make themselves unique from other states, and preferring a regional treat to the national one is common.

For these rural communities something like birch beer is both a historical and regional delicacy and for many it’s something that separates them from other states, such as New York – It’s often a ‘us and them’ situation between birch beer and root beer, which is why people can get annoyed when they are compared.

Final Thoughts

As you can see birch beer is a pretty interesting drink for what it’s worth. It’s completely unique in its flavor, being flavored by the birch beer, and is worth a try should you run into it on your travels across the states.

If you are from Pennsylvania, you have already probably heard of this drink that is more popular than root beer in the state.

Put simply, birch beer is a type of soda that is made from boiling birch bark or sap. It’s actually a historic drink that has been around for a long time, and is traditionally made in the country communities to create alcohol for cheap.

It has grown to be a Pennsylavanian treat that is held in the heart of many of its residents.

Rees Vaughn
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