In pursuit of the perfect Birch Beer August 31st, 2012
First, a little story
When I was growing up as a kid in Michigan, every summer my Mom and I would spend 3-6 weeks on an island in the northern part of Lake Michigan. It was easily the highlight of every year and an experience I sadly wont be able to duplicate for my children. While on this island there was a particular beverage that I never found in my home town: Sioux City Birch Beer.
Birch Beer is a carbonated soda beverage made from the sap of the birch tree. It has a very similar taste to most root beers, except with a bit more bite. It originates in Pennsylvania but is sold all over the north-eastern United States. Different species of Birch tree produce different flavors. Since moving to California I’ve not seen any type of birch beer in stores, and indeed I’ve found most SoCal residents have never heard of it.
Finding a dealer
A few months ago I watched an awesome documentary on the food network about Galcos Soda Pop Stop, a store in Anaheim that specializes in only carbonated beverages. After checking out their website, sure enough, they had sioux city birch beer… and a whole bunch of other birch beers that I had never heard of. Initially I bought an entire case of the drink from my childhood (and paid a hefty shipping fee to get them down to San Diego). I drank it slowly, rationing my supply so I could enjoy it as much as possible.
After finishing the case I was left somewhat disappointed. Don’t take me wrong, it’s still delicious, but at some point in the last 20 years the manufacturer switched from cane sugar to high fructose corn syrup. The flavor is ruined, it’s now sickly sweet, like the difference between Coke and Pepsi. This could just be the result of nothing tasting as good as your memory of the taste, but regardless I was left without the flavor I wanted.
This month I decided to perform an experiment. I ordered a single bottle of every variety of birch beer that Galcos sells (excluding diet varieties), and tried each of them one by one to see which I liked the most.
Some of the flavors really didn’t work for me, so I’m only going to talk about my four favorites.
My very favorite of the lot was Kutztown Birch Beer. Kutztown is a 171 year old soda manufacturer in Pennsylvania that specializes in brewed sodas, so it’s no surprise that they know how to make a good birch beer. They use pure cane sugar as a sweetener, and the soda had just the right balance of sappy bite and sweetness.
Second runner up was Pennsylvania Dutch Birch Beer. PD does contain HFCS, but surprisingly was not very sweet. In fact, the reason it lost first place was because it tasted more like a root beer than a birch beer, too much bite and not enough birch. It appears to be the only drink made under the 76 year old Pennsylvania Dutch brand.
In third place was Foxon Park White Birch. This is a clear birch beer made with cane sugar, and is most notable as being the only birch beer I tried which actually had a wood taste. It literally tasted like a birch tree, which was surprising but not unpleasant. The label proudly states that it is caffeine free, but this is a misnome as all birch beers are caffeine free. It’s made by Foxon Park Beverages, an 80 year old Connecticut based company. Foxon makes a number of other delicious looking sodas that I’ll probably trying in the future.
The final runner up was Hanks Genuine Gourmet Birch Beer. It’s a cane sugar variety that had good flavor, but didn’t stand out as superb.
My next soda experiment will be Sarsparillas, another category of soda that Sioux City is well known for.