Birch Beer

Birch Beer

Appalachian Brewing Co.: White Birch Beer

History: 2015 has been the biggest year in the still-emerging gourmet soda market, but it was in the late summer of 2014 when CNBC raised the question of if craft soda was the next big thing in the beverage industry. And if you’re a weirdo and way too into this stuff like we are, you know the article itself set off a chain of others that raised the profile of craft soda. The brand under the brightest spotlight in that article? Appalachian Brewing Co. When I think of Appalachia, I envision brawny-chested, flannel-wearing, goat-faced men lumbering across mountaintops, trekking deep into the forest, and chopping wood for no apparent reason. But Appalachian Brewing Co. isn’t on mountain top or nestled in a forest. The brewery is headquartered in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and has brewpubs in smaller surrounding areas. It’s a big business for a craft brewer. And its biggest business now comes from soda, not beer. The microbrewery was founded in 1997 with root beer and ginger beer available in the brewery from day one. The company added birch beer in 2008 and diet root beer in 2009. Despite having 15 beers and only four sodas, the lower cost of producing soda and its growing popularity resulted in the brewery investing heavily in its soft drink line. “It was due to the demand. People wanted to buy it. It just ended up turning into a bigger deal,” says Artie Tafoya, Appalachian Brewing’s Director of Operations. Tafoya says that soda sales ballooned so much from 2008 onward that the brewery opened a fully operational soda manufacturing plant in 2014. “We try to make it as genuinely as possible,” Tafoya says, adding that all Appalachian Brewing Co. sodas are batch brewed, made with pure cane sugar, and use as many natural ingredients as possible.

Being located in Pennsylvania, it seemed like a logical choice to review the brewery’s birch beer. For those who don’t know, Pennsylvania is without a doubt the most popular state for birch beer because of its “Pennsylvania Dutch” influence. Tayfoya explained to us that Pennsylvania is a state with a large population of German immigrants who brought with them many culinary traditions, one of those being birch beer. There’s also a ton of birch trees in the state, so it’s easier to produce it there. Birch beer is kind of like cream soda in the sense that both are available in a wide variety of colors, but Appalachian Brewing wanted a birch beer as natural as possible in both flavor and hue, which is why theirs is white. There are no artificial ingredients or caffeine in Appalachian Brewing’s birch beer. “We like our flavorings because they’re very crisp and clean…. It almost cleanses the palate,” Tafoya says of the birch beer, adding he believes the company found the right blend of spearmint and peppermint to round out its flavor profile. There’s also a touch of honey in their birch beer, something you don’t often see with this flavor. As we wrapped up our phone call, he told us his motto is to go all-out to achieve great flavor, something we’ll always respect. “I’ll spend any amount of money to make it,” he says. In talking to Tafoya, I’m not surprised the company’s soda has done so well. Commitment often leads to consistency and it’s clear the Appalachian Brewing Co. is dedicated to quality. It sounds good on paper. Let’s put it in practice.

Where to get: Appalachian Brewing Co. craft soda is sold across the midwest and upper northeast, but your best bet is to order online directly through the company via its Ebay store by going here.

Nose: Smells more like a root beer with extra mint than a birch beer. Rich, almost creamy, which likely comes from the honey.

Taste: Wintergreen; sugar; birch oil; light carbonation. Definitely a strong use of wintergreen. That’s undoubtedly the signature flavor of this soda. It has a crisp, minty bite along the tip and sides of the tongue, though I wouldn’t consider this spicy. Just a minty bite. I’m also not tasting the honey in this in a distinctive way. This is a little smoother than most birch beers, something the honey may influence, but the honey notes don’t come through for me. This is very clean and minty on the palate.

Finish: Mild wintergreen that rolls along the back of the tongue. Smooth.

Rating: Birch beer is really a northeast phenomenon in the world of craft soda. Certainly, it’s sold across the world, but you won’t find a more condensed area of birch beer fans than in the northeastern portion of America. Sometimes I feel like others don’t really appreciate birch beer for this reason – they aren’t often exposed to it. Appalachian Brewing’s White Birch Beer is a straightforward take on the category. It’s clean. It’s fairly smooth. And it’s loaded with wintergreen mint flavor. Not particularly spicy. Not particularly sophisticated on the palate, but it’s easy enough to drink if you like minty soda or are a fan of birch beers. I liken birch beer to being the scotch of craft soda because it’s an acquired taste, especially for drinkers new to the category. This won’t be for everyone because of the large reliance on mint flavor. Mint isn’t like vanilla; it doesn’t win everyone over. If you’re a birch beer fan or are looking to try out something new, this should be up your alley. Personally, for a soda made with honey, I’d like to taste its influence and I didn’t feel like I got what was advertised in that respect. It’s like going on a Tinder date and realizing their photo was hiding about thirty extra pounds. That’s my only real complaint. You’ll probably either love this or hate it, as is the case with most birch beers. Will you pop the top and take a chance or play it safe?

Three Stars

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Boylan’s: Creamy Red Birch Beer

History: You know Boylan Bottling’s soda. It’s widely available. It’s recognizable with its raised letter glass bottles. It’s one of the powerhouses in the world of craft soda. And it’s been around for a long time. “Our heritage is very rich,” says Senior Vice President, Chris Taylor. It all started back in 1891 when William Boylan began selling cups of birch beer out of the back of a horse-drawn carriage in Petterson, New Jersey. “He had a horse, so he had distribution,” Taylor quips. At the turn of the century, Boylan teamed up with local politician John W. Sturr to bottle his now-famous birch beer. The partnership didn’t last long. In the words of Taylor, Sturr had some “ethical challenges.” Wait, a corrupt politician? No way! Not even soda is safe. Post-prohibition in 1933, Boylan decided alcohol would be more profitable and sold his business to the company’s lead truck driver, who began selling kegged root beer and birch beer. In the 1980’s the truck driver’s two grandsons moved the company toward glass bottles and began introducing new flavors. Today the company is headed by CEO Michael Milstein.

Boylan is one of the most easily accessible craft sodas on the market with distribution in all 50 states. Boylan has had multiple breakthroughs that have opened the public’s eye to craft soda. In 2008, they were one of the first non-Pepsi or Coca Cola companies to have a fountain soda offering. They’ve also made significant inroads merging into the food industry. Boylan Black Cherry, Creme Soda, and Ginger Ale are available at Arby’s locations throughout the nation. They have the meats. And they have Boylan. In fact, according to Taylor, 55% of the company’s total sales comes from food service. So don’t be surprised if your favorite upscale burger joint carries Boylan products too. Their most recent project, Boylan Heritage, is a venture with W&P Design into upscale mixers. They also run a seasonal program that includes the flavor we’re reviewing today: creamy red birch beer. Since Boylan is such a big company, we wanted to review something that remained true to the original flavor, but was still unique. Taylor notes “It’s a northeast flavor with hints of peppermint and birch,” as well as a mixture of vanillas that were kept secret from us. He uses the term Pennsylvania Dutch as we’ve mentioned before when birch beer is in play. Again, no one knows what this means. Just pretend it’s a real thing. One thing we do know that’s real is the liquid. Let us refresh now.

Where to get: Boylan Bottling sodas are widely available across the nation. I’d be pretty shocked if you can’t find it in a grocery store near you. But maybe you live in the woods or something. As long as your treehouse has wifi, you can buy it online from Summit City Soda, Amazon, or Soda Emporium.

Nose: Wintergreen mint; vanilla; red cream soda.

Taste: Peppermint; foamy bubbles; birch oil; light vanilla. The birch and peppermint flavors in this are immediate and bold. This is unmistakably birch beer. The “creamy” label on this, in my opinion, is more derived from the carbonation than the flavor. The bubbles are light and frothy, foamy even. They bite the lips, yet float across the tongue. It’s a wonderful form of carbonation that feels perfect in the mouth. There’s some vanilla in this, but it’s fleeting between the birch and peppermint flavors. I think the soda would be better served bringing the vanilla profile more to the forefront. The sugar level in this works really nicely. It’s up there at 42 grams, but the mint cuts it for a balanced symmetry of flavors.

Finish: Cane sugar; wintergreen; creamy foam.

Rating: If you’re a fan of birch beer, you’ll drink this one up. Boylan has crafted a soda rich in both birch and peppermint flavors with a hint of vanilla. But where Creamy Red Birch Beer really excels its carbonation. Often an overlooked element in sodas, the fizz or bubbles or whatever you want to call them, are critical in creating a pleasant mouth feel. This one is light and airy, similar to foam. It’s really fantastic. Birch beer is often a love it or hate it soda with little in between. It’s an acquired taste. It’s like the step-mom of soda, except if you hate it you don’t have to live with it until your late teens. Hope you’re not reading this, Michele. This could use a little more creaminess in its flavor profile as opposed to just mouth feel. I think a bolder vanilla taste would be a nice solution. But all things considered, this is a nice twist on classic birch beer that executes its most important flavors in a pleasing fashion. Lovers of earthier, botanical sodas will enjoy immensely.

Hooker Mountain Farm: Maple Birch Beer

History: Hooker Mountain Farm sounds like my weird next door neighbor’s fantasy come to life. But it’s much more innocent than it sounds. Hooker Mountain Farm is actually a real farm on 65 acres of land in Cabot, Vermont. Opened in 2010, the farm specializes in a variety of agricultural-based products from chicken and cattle to smoked bacon and barbecue beef sticks, to, you guessed it, soda. And it wouldn’t be Vermont if there weren’t maple syrup involved. Vermont is basically the Canada of America. It was 2013 when farm founder David Thayer decided to start brewing maple sodas based on his own home beer brewing knowledge. The farm currently produces three flavors as well as seasonal offerings year-round. They fire brew all the maple syrup that goes into their sodas. Maple is the main sweetening agent. About 70% of the maple syrup in each soda comes from Hooker Mountain Farm, while the other 30% comes from other local sources. Think of it kind of like a small batch bourbon blend, only not bourbon and all maple syrup. Cane sugar is also used, but Thayer notes the farm intentionally strives for a soda with less sugar and more of a bite. Each bottle contains only about 23 grams of sugar as opposed to other sodas that sometimes reach 60 grams of sugar. In Thayer’s own words, “We wanted to resuscitate a more natural-tasting soda” using ingredients right from the farm’s land. In the maple birch we’re sampling today, the birch ingredients and mint all came right off the farm’s 65 acres. They also wanted something that tasted fresh. In fact, no sodium benzoate (a preservative) is used inside the bottle, meaning there’s a limited shelf life for ideal flavor. You’ll want to drink this within three months of getting it. But why would you wait that long, ya dummy? Thayer actually likens their maple birch beer to a maple-flavored ginger ale. How ’bout that? We’re already dealing with a soda confused about its identity and it’s only three months-old. Call the counselor.

Where to get: Hooker Mountain Farm soda is currently only sold in Vermont. This will be one of the harder sodas to get your hands on outside of the state. Your best bet to is contact the company directly via phone or email. Just know shipping may be pricey. In the near future, this should be much easier when the farm launches their line of soda syrups that will be more cost-effective to ship.

Nose: Maple root beer; light mint.

Taste: Light maple; dates; mild wintergreen; sugar. The maple in this isn’t overpowering. Hooker Mountain Farm intentionally strives for a soft drink that’s less sweet than a normal craft soda. I get the maple first. It’s very light. It blends with the birch bark and mint to form what tastes like a date flavor. Definitely some fruity notes to go along with the maple. This definitely doesn’t taste like traditional birch beer. The mint in this is much less intense than what you’re accustomed to in a birch beer. It’s there, but if someone made you drink this without telling you what it is, you probably wouldn’t guess birch beer. Unlike other sodas that rely heavily on maple as their sweetening agent, this one also uses some cane sugar as a supplement. It really helps. Certainly maple is more prevalent on the palate, but the cane sugar fuses nicely with it for a pleasing finish on the tongue. I’d like to see a little more strength from the traditional birch flavorings in this soda. The birch beer taste quickly evaporates as the carbonation fades. The maple, however, is nicely done.

Finish: Lingering maple that’s light and fluffy; cane sugar that acts as a nice bed for the maple to float along. The maple finish in this is arguably the soda’s best trait because it holds its flavor so well.

Rating: For a natural maple soda, this really nails the main ingredient. Using maple as your main sweetening agent can be a difficult task to make taste good. Trust us, we found out the hard way. The maple in this introduces itself to your palate right away and is accompanied by some fruity notes. We taste dates or even dried prunes. The maple’s flavor lasts throughout the body of the soda and into the finish, increasing in sweetness as it goes along. But… this is maple birch beer. Our biggest complaint is that it doesn’t really taste like a birch beer with maple added. We’re not sure if the maple syrup dilutes the birch flavors too much or if there isn’t enough traditional earthy, mint notes in here with which to begin. Regardless, I think this would benefit from some bolder birch flavorings. This has been described by the folks at Hooker Mountain Farm as tasting like a maple ginger ale. At times, I definitely thought to myself that it tasted like a version of maple 7-Up. In a good way. If this just generally called itself maple soda, I’d give it four stars. Even in the craft soda world where ingredients are typically of a much higher quality, we’re used to something sexy – sweet, sugary beverages. We always desire the cover models. This is more like your friend’s hot mom. It’s natural, not quite as sweet, but still worth a try if you can attain it. Very non-traditional. Its flavors may be too foreign or too much of an acquired taste for some. If you’re looking for a bold birch beer with sweet maple, you’ll come out of this experience potentially dissatisfied. Instead, expect a more maple-rich soda with a tinge of bark and mint flavors. Getting your hands on this may be tough, but if you can, it’s worth the experience.

Reading Draft: Creamy Red Birch Beer

History: Reading Draft is a classic, 100% American-made, old-school soda company that’s had roots in the soda industry since 1921. Located in Reading, Pennsylvania (pronounced Red-ing), the business has been through several different phases of ownership. In 2004, it was purchased by  Martin Radvani, but his wife was the driving force. After cashing out of his own previous business, Radvani’s wife got tired of seeing him sitting around the house. When the two met with a banker about the possibility of purchasing Reading Draft, Radvani’s wife said “Give him a check” before they’d even had time to discuss. He pulled out his pen because “happy wife, happy life.” Despite the exchanging of hands multiple times, the company is still known for its handcrafted “Pennsylvania Dutch” flavor. Ah yes, now you’re intrigued. So what does that mean? Well, even the Radvani’s have a hard time putting it into words. It’s a combination of things. On its founding in 1921, Reading was a city heavily influenced by German immigrants who had settled throughout the northeast. The Germans liked their beverages made simple with a bold taste. Ever had German beer? It’s delicious and jammed with flavor. It’s that German, err, “Pennsylvania Dutch” influence that led to Reading Draft’s signature soda: beer… well, birch beer. The company actually makes four variations. Reading Draft birch beer comes in regular, white, red cream, and blueberry. The company is proud of its soda’s emphasis on flavor. “It’s an adjunct to local beers,” says Radvani. Another component unique to Reading Draft’s methods is its style of carbonation. We’ll spare you the science, but the bottom line is that their sodas are infused with lots of pinhead-sized bubbles instead of the traditional carbonated bubbles that are about the size of an eraser head. This is done to ensure a smoother mouth feel. As with most craft soda, Reading Draft uses also pure cane sugar in their recipes.

Where to get: Reading Draft soda is available through the nation. Radvani encourages the public to contact their nearest distributor to ensure the safest method of shipping. That said, the company is open to placing custom orders directly.

Nose: Cream soda; light wintergreen breath mints; yellow cake.

Taste: Creamy wintergreen; minty vanilla; sugar; soft mouth feel. This is interesting for birch beer. You’re greeted right away with that classic wintergreen flavor found in almost all birch beers, but it’s so much lighter in Reading Draft’s Creamy Red. The wintergreen only lingers for a few seconds before giving way to a light classic cream soda taste. Interesting, considering this soda is as burgundy as cheap furniture from the 70’s. You’d expect maybe a red cream bubble gum taste, but it’s definitely just vanilla tinged with mint. When we say wintergreen, don’t think mint or spearmint, despite the photo above. WINTERGREEN LEAF IS HARD TO FIND, OK?! Sorry. Basically, wintergreen is that flavor of candy grandma always has in her glass bowl that’s been there for like seven years. Hence, it’s an acquired taste. Yet, this is surprisingly easy-drinking for birch beer. The more you drink this, the bolder the flavors become. The cane sugar really helps to accentuate the mint up front and the creaminess at the end. Reading Draft does use more sugar in this recipe as opposed to their original. When paired with ice, the wintergreen really mellows out, while the creaminess becomes more noticeable.

Finish: Creaminess that rises on the back of the tongue and evaporates into wintergreen that lingers until the next sip. By the end of the bottle, the creamy aftertaste becomes more mint and less vanilla. Unique and smooth.

Rating: Typically, birch beers are an acquired taste due to their strong mint flavors found in birch oil. I liken birch beer to being the scotch of the soda world because you’re usually older by the time you start enjoying it. But this is something even kids would probably like because of its blend of traditional vanilla flavor with the classic wintergreen taste. Reading Draft’s use of extra sugar in this particular birch flavor is really nicely done and acts as a flavor enhancer as opposed to shocking the drinker’s taste buds. Kudos for pulling that off. However, the increasingly strong mint finish leaves the drinker’s taste buds a little disoriented and longing for more creaminess. While we still can’t really give you a tangible answer of what “Pennsylvania Dutch” flavor is, we can definitely recommend this deep, dark red concoction. Surprisingly easy-drinking for a soda that’s known to be a sipper. Only lumberjacks from the Northeast drink birch beer fast. But don’t worry, you don’t need to be a lumberjack to like this. A must-try for connoisseurs of birch beer for its unique take on an old original. If you’re not big into mint, this may not be for you. This is still birch beer; it’s still minty. If you’re looking for something different, but aren’t in the mood to get really experimental and try a soda with something like white balsamic in it, this is your bottle. Just don’t spill it on your clothes. It will look like you killed something.