What the Heck Is Birch Beer?

I was recently at a little country store and farm market in my hometown called Apple Castle, perusing the cooler for a cold, fizzy, and sugary drink on a hot July day. I found a good selection of sodas from this Pennsylvanian company called Kutztown: orange cream soda, root beer, red cream soda, and something curiously called birch beer. I had never heard of birch beer before, but it sounded like something your hillbilly uncle would whip up in a displaced bathtub inside his garage, and I felt oddly compelled to pick one up. After posting a photo of the bottle to my Instagram stories, I proceeded to get a ton of DMs about it, which is how I know a product really resonates with people (unfortunately, food pics get way more engagement than pictures of my face).

Birch beer is a carbonated drink made from herbal extracts and birch bark. That’s right, it’s made from dang ol’ tree bark. Birch beer was first mentioned in the 1707 book The Art of Husbandry by agricultural writer John Mortimer. The book contains a lot of musings about furs, seeds, and the medicinal qualities of plants—basically, exactly what you’d expect from an agricultural manual written in 1707. There are a few paragraphs on birch, mainly about poor settlers boiling birch sap with sugar, and then fermenting it to make a crude soft drink. 

No matter where you live in the U.S., you’ve likely seen birch trees. They have thin leaves and usually a silver color to their bark, although the birch trees used for birch beer are typically darker in color. They’re also deciduous trees, which are often described as giant flowery plants. It makes sense, then, that the birch bark is so aromatic. Something we often forget is that trees have played a crucial role in cooking and brewing for centuries. Applewood is used to roast lamb, hickory to make smoked ham, and tree bark is even used to make the sweet and fiery Dominican drink mamajuana. Trees have flavor, and don’t forget it.

Birch beer is made with birch bark, typically from a black birch tree (often called a sweet birch tree), which carries a subtle, spiced fragrance. According to Modern Farmer, the birch bark is boiled for a long time to release its essential oils. The solids are strained out and then the solution is fermented with yeast. This author of the Modern Farmer post even spoke to the manager at Kutztown Bottling Works, Andy Schlegel, who says that Kutztown started making birch beer during Prohibition. The small Pennsylvania company started off bottling and selling beer, but when alcohol was outlawed in 1920, they had to pivot to soda. According to Andy, birch beer isn’t really a common thing outside of Pennsylvania, but that’s not entirely true. It stands to reason that you could make birch beer anywhere that had birch trees, which commonly grows in temperate climates in North America. According to this map, sweet birch trees are indeed most prominent in Pennsylvania, though they’re not merely regulated to the state itself (see birch beer companies in the Carolinas, New Jersey, etc.). Still, the Northeastern part of the country remains the most likely place to find the stuff, and it is in fact embraced wholly in Pennsylvania. Regionalized delicacies have a way of lasting in the Keystone state, where people also enjoy chips fried in lard and putting french fries on salad.

So what the hell does birch beer taste like? Well, people often compare it to root beer, but I don’t think that does it justice. Birch beer is quite aromatic and earthy. The spiced notes feel fresh and nuanced, and there is a lightness and herbiness to it that you just don’t get from many sodas. Kutztown’s birch beer tastes fresh and crisp. It’s made with triple-filtered carbonated water, cane sugar (no corn syrup), caramel color, sodium benzoate, citric acid, artificial and natural flavors, yucca extractives, and acacia. It’s a more delicate, subtle flavor than root beer, which is often heavily spiced and boldly sweet.

Birch beer is a throwback for sure. It’s one of those things that thrives in the antiquated, odd, refreshingly unique culinary landscape of the Northeast. If you’re a student of soft drinks, and want to try a fizzy treat that has a little more nuance and flavor, drink some damn tree bark soda for a sugary, spiced kick.


About the Author

Danny Palumbo

Danny is a comedian, cook, and food writer living in Los Angeles. He loves gas station eggs, canned sardines, and Easter candy. He also passionately believes that all the best chips come from Pennsylvania (Herr's!). If you can't understand Danny when he talks, it's because he's from Pittsburgh.

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  • I saw a show on one of the food channels where, like Maple trees, they make Birch syrup out of Birch tree sap in Canada and Alaska. It is rarer and tastes as good or better than maple syrup according to the show I saw. Type in Birch Syrup at Amazon and you will find it.

    Reply
    • I just did! wow that’s wild. Need to try this.

      Reply
  • My favorite soda. Served “on tap” in many NJ & PA restaurants. I like Boylan the most. And, by the way, for my taste buds, it has to be RED Birch Beer.

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    • what’s the flavor of red birch beer? think I might order some!

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  • We love Wild Bill’s birch beer. It’s a New Jersey company but they used to travel to festivals. Since we know how good it is there have been a few times we’ve had a box shipped to KY.

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  • Did you know that birch beer soda comes in many different colors? Most are, indeed, native to PA. (*knuckle bump*)

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  • Birch beer is big in Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey, the Carolinas…. West Virginia… The list goes on and on. Maybe you should travel more

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    • the list doesn’t go on and on and I acknowledged that it exists primarily in the Northeast. That’s a fact.

      The rep for Kutztown implied that it thrives solely in Pennsylvania, but that’s not true. People seem to think it originated there, though.

      Maybe you should re-read the article 🙂

      Reply