Birch beer is a drink common along the East Coast of the United States. With a fresh, minty, wintergreen taste, birch beer is nonalcoholic. However, if made traditionally, it undergoes a mild fermentation process for carbonation. Birch beer is similar to root beer, and is flavored primarily with oil from the birch tree.
Using Birch Bark
Birch beer can be made with either birch bark oil, which is distilled from birch bark, or from dried birch bark. If using birch oil, you can add it directly to water, without any distillation or processing. If using bark, submerge the dried birch bark — either as flakes, powder or pieces — into boiling water, boiling until the liquid takes on the wintergreen flavor you desire. Birch bark pieces, as well as the oil, can be found in herbal and health food stores.
Sugar and Other Additives
In addition to birch bark, you need a syrup, often made with white or brown sugar, or other sweeteners. Brown sugar will add color to your birch beer, giving it a light caramel color, as will molasses. Molasses will also add depth to your birch beer, giving it extra richness. Other common additives for birch beer include crushed ginger, vanilla bean and sometimes star anise. Boil water, birch bark and any other additives in water until the flavor has been fully extracted, roughly 30 minutes. Strain the water to remove all ingredients and sediment. If using birch oil, boil water and any other additives, strain and then add birch oil to the hot water. Once the water has been strained, add sugar to taste to create the base for your birch beer.
To Ferment or Not
Carbonation in your birch beer comes from adding carbonated water, or from fermentation. Ferment birch beer by adding ale yeast to your base mixture. If using yeast, let the birch bark and sugar mixture cool to remove any sediment. Once the mixture is at 75 degrees Fahrenheit, you can add in a small amount of yeast, roughly one-eighth teaspoon per gallon of liquid. Allow the yeast to sit for 15 minutes before transferring the liquid to capped bottles. Carbonated water can be added directly to the cooled birch beer base. If using carbonated water, use less water when making the birch beer base. Make a thick syrup rather than a sweetened liquid.
Storage and Consumption
If using carbonated water for your birch beer, your beer is ready to consume as soon as it is chilled. If using yeast, let the mixtures sit in small, sealed bottles for 36 hours before opening and testing the carbonation level. If you want more carbonation, let the beer rest, capped, for an additional 12 to 24 hours. Once ready, store in the fridge for 2 days before drinking. Birch beer, when made with yeast, can keep for roughly 1 month. For beer made from syrup, store the syrup in a tightly sealed jar and mix with carbonated water as needed. The syrup can keep for 3 to 4 months in the fridge.
David Grimes has worked professionally as a chef since 2002, in settings as wide-ranging as a corporate caterer and as a sous chef in a Michelin-starred French restaurant. He has been writing about food since 2009 and published in "Time Out New York" and "Food and Wine" magazine.