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?