Serious Eats: Drinks
Taste Test: Birch Beer
Ask a West Coaster if they've ever had a birch beer and the response is almost always the same: "Birch beer? What's that?" Birch beer never really took off for the rest of the country like it did in the eastern United States. That's a shame, because birch beer can be just as satisfying as its closest relative, root beer, and some of us even prefer it. We gathered nine different brands of birch beer to figure out which one was the best.
What gives birch beer its unique flavor? Glad you asked! Birch beers are flavored with oil distilled from the sap of birch trees, usually the Sweet Birch. These trees grow primarily from northern Georgia to southern Maine, which might be one explanation for why the East Coast has such a monopoly on birch beer.
Other common ingredients in birch beer include yucca extracts and acacia, which meld with the birch oil to help form the duo of wintergreen and licorice flavors most frequently associated with this soda.
Are you a fan of birch beer? Do you have a favorite?
Birch Beers We Tried
Each birch beer was sampled in a blind taste test and judged on the following criteria:
- Carbonation: No one likes flat soda, but too much fizz can sting the mouth and mask flavors. In addition to the levels of initial carbonation, we also looked at how quickly these sodas lost their bubbly effervescence once emancipated from their respective bottles.
- Sweetness: A good birch beer should be neither too dry nor too sugary. We also looked at where the sweetness was coming from, and whether or not it overpowered the flavor of the birch oil.
- Overall birch beer flavor: How much does the soda evoke its actual name? Is the birch oil detectable, muted, or completely absent? Like root beer, birch beer should have overtones of mint and a medicinal note on the back of the palate. It should also go down easy without drowning your tastebuds in syrup.
Why The Losers Lost
Because of the strong wintergreen aspect of birch beer, drinking a substantial quantity of it has a numbing effect on the mouth. Our least favorite sodas from this bunch sped up that process, and delivered an overbearing sweetness as well. One brand was astonishingly sour, leaving a bizarre aftertaste that no one in the tasting group enjoyed.
After a rigorous round of tasting and re-tasting, we settled on our five favorites:
The Top Five
5. Pennsylvania Dutch
4. Boylan's Creamy Red
2. Sioux City
And the Winner Is...AJ Stephans
From: Fall River, MA
As noted in the Root Beer Taste Test, AJ Stephans really has the whole carbonation thing down cold. It stayed fizzy several hours after the bottle was opened, and was, as one taster put it, "Like pouring a thousand tiny bubbles onto your tongue."
Though this soda had a distinct medicinal bite, it wasn't overpowering. Expect bold wintergreen, anise, and licorice flavors that linger on the palate.
This was the overwhelming favorite from the tasting panel, and the one you should hunt down if you're looking for the quintessential birch beer experience. We got ours from Galco's Soda Pop Stop.