What's The Difference Between Root Beer And Birch Beer?

When you're looking for a soda that's a little different from the standard cola and lemon-lime varieties, your mind might run to root beer as an alternative. But if you're in New England, you might consider reaching for a birch beer instead. Of course, if you are not in New England or have not spent much time in that part of the country — particularly Pennsylvania, where the drink is incredibly popular — you might be wondering what birch beer even is. The regional soda is actually similar to root beer, but according to Renegade Brewing, birch beer has a "more intense, clearer, and complex" flavor than many root beers; it also has a strong minty quality.

Since they're both made with strong herbal ingredients, both birch beer and root beer were popularized as medicinal drinks in the 1800s, though North Market Pop Shop notes that some recipes for alcoholic birch beer date back much further to the mid-1600s. Dr. Pepper Museum notes that some of the ingredients in root beer were commonly used to treat conditions like indigestion and nerve pain, and were believed to clear the skin. The major difference in the two drinks is which herbal ingredients they primarily use. As Renegade Brewing explains, root beer originally used sassafras root, while birch beer, as the name suggests, used birch bark.

Subtle flavor differences

As noted, the main difference between birch beer and root beer is that birch beer is made with birch while root beer is more of a mix of unique flavors, including a prominent taste of sassafras. These days, however, Renegade Brewing notes that flavor is achieved artificially, since sassafras root has been discovered to have carcinogenic properties. 

Similarly, Modern Farmer notes that birch beer is now made with oils from the sap of birch trees instead of from boiled bark, though this has less impact on the taste. Modern Farmer describes the taste of birch beer as light, refreshing, and less sweet than root beer, with a natural spicy mint flavor. Though if you're thinking you've tasted mint in your root beer, you're not wrong. According to Renegade Brewing an extra layer of confusion has been added to this conundrum by the fact that several types of root include birch in their ingredients, along with flavors like cinnamon, licorice, clove, and honey, though obviously in much smaller amounts.

While the shorter ingredient list may lead to a cleaner, more natural flavor for birch beer, there is a downside: Renegade Brewing notes that the sap used in birch beer can cause allergic reactions in people who have strong pollen allergies, and can cause symptoms like rashes, swelling, and congestion if consumed in large quantities — so be aware of this if you have seasonal allergies and are planning a trip to Pennsylvania, or just during your own taste test of these drinks.