Root beer is a taste from my childhood. Covered in dirt from the baseball diamond, mouth lightly coated in the chalky dust of the baselines after a few unnecessary but fun slides, there was no better feeling than chugging down a post game treat of root beer from the concession stand. The creamy foam bubbled against the nose while the scent of woodsy mint tickled the olfactory gland. At the time, I had no idea what methyl salicylate was nor did I care. All I knew was that the flavor of root beer was transcendent, liquid perfection.
Years later, while living in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, I came across
another drink that transported me back to my childhood. Birch beer is made from the inner bark of black or yellow birch trees. Though unrelated to sassafras, sarsaparilla, or wintergreen, black and yellow birch contain the same methyl salicylate, giving it the same nostalgic woodsy mint flavor that brings me back to those post game drinks of my childhood. A friend and I did a brief internet search for a recipe and tried brewing our own batch. The result was an under flavored clear liquid, tasting strongly of yeast. It has been 10 years since that first attempt, so I don’t recall where exactly we went wrong. After a decade of foraging and cooking experience, I decided to give it another go.
To make birch beer, first you must find a birch tree. That first failed batch was made with black birch. Here in central VT, that species is hard to come by. Yellow birch is much more common and has the same distinctive birch flavor. The bark of yellow birch is peely like other birch species, however, it tends to peel in thinner, wispy strips, as opposed to the larger sheets of paper birch. The color is also more of a golden and has a slight shine to it. Older specimens may have thicker, plate-like bark with clearly defined lenticels. If you are uncertain of the species before you, try the scratch and sniff test. Take one of the outermost branches, scratch off a bit of bark from a twig, and smell. If it smells reminiscent of root beer or wintergreen, then you have the right tree.
There are many conflicting instructions out there. Some say to use the sap of the birch tree while others say to use the inner bark. Still other say to cut up and use the entire twig. There are recipes using boiling water, luke warm water, and cool water. I’ve decided to go with cutting small branches of yellow birch into 1 to 2 inch pieces and steeping in warm water to extract the flavor. If you use boiling water, it will extract too much tannic acid, causing your tea to become bitter. Warming water on the stove to just below a simmer should work just fine. You can make any sized batch that you want. I happened to have a half gallon mason jar sitting empty on the counter. After filling the mason jar 3/4 the way full, I poured in the warm water and allowed it to steep for at least 3 hours. I’ve found that sitting overnight maximizes the flavor. The color of the liquid should be a deep orange brown.
At this point, once you’ve strained out the twigs, you have a birch tea. This can be served as is or with a bit of brown sugar or honey to round out the rough edges. I like the flavor so much that I tend to drink it at this stage. However, if you are going to make a true birch beer, you will need to ferment your brew. This is done with the introduction of sugar and yeast. Stirring in raw honey kills two birds with one stone. The raw honey, having never been heated, still contains live yeast which will feed upon the sugars once dissolved into the tea. As the yeast digests the sugars, it will release carbon dioxide,thus carbonizing your drink. For my half gallon of birch tea, I used half a cup of honey and half a cup of brown sugar. I put on an airlock lid to allow the gases to escape safely, avoiding a counter bomb. If you don’t have an airlock, you could also tie on muslin or cheese cloth to cover (though airlocks are more fool proof). The fermentation process could be sped up with the introduction of your choice of brewing yeast, if you are in a hurry. Just be sure to refrigerate after a day or two to avoid a slightly boozy soda. Or not…
I shared a glass with my two year old son (The Man Cub), so I was made sure to stop the fermentation before reaching the boozy state. Three days were enough to produce a light carbonation. I transferred the birch beer into a swing top bottle and refrigerated it to stop the fermentation process. The end result was a pleasant drink with just enough bubble and a strong aroma of methyl salicylate. It was met with the approval of the Man Cub. Upon asking him if it tasted good he responded, “It tastes like booch bear. It makes me feel better because I drink so much booch bear.”