Root beer and birch beer both make excellent ice cream floats and even have a similar flavor. But there are distinct differences in their ingredients that account for the two names and the fierce loyalty of fans. Historically, the plants used to flavor both beverages were used for medicinal teas and external salves to treat a variety of complaints. When Pharmacist Charles Hires debuted his cold-serve brew at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial, the recipe called for a mix of roots, barks and herbs, including both sassafras and birch extracts.
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Root beer is made from a concoction of different roots and plants that include anise, cinnamon, ginger, juniper, dandelion, vanilla, sarsaparilla and a once primary ingredient, sassafras. It is naturally noncaffeinated, although some soda manufacturers add caffeine to provide the extra stimulus drinkers of colas expect. Birch beer is made from boiled birch sap or the roots and twigs of the birch tree. Birch flavoring is often used in making root beer and the two beverages have a similar taste. True birch beer, unlike root beer, contains no other roots for flavoring.
Root beer flavoring or extracts are used to make candy, cough drops, flavored popcorn and even shampoo. Sassafras, the main flavoring in root beer, may be used in perfumes, scented soaps and as a yellow dye. It was used medicinally as a pain reliever, stimulant, treatment for skin diseases and syphilis, among other applications. Raw birch sap is sold as a spring tonic in Scandinavia, Asia and Russia, according to the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Birch is also used as an ingredient in alcoholic birch beers, birch wine and birch syrup. It can be found in shampoos, soaps, cosmetics, aromatherapy products, herbal teas and some pharmaceuticals.
Sassafras and Sarsaparilla
Sarsaparilla is a root used as a flavoring and as a medicinal herb in the treatment of psoriasis and for blood cleansing. It has a slightly spicy flavor and is coupled with sassafras to make a soda that can go by either name: sassafras or sarsaparilla. The soda tastes very much like root beer, as the two sodas share primary ingredients. Sassafras is a tree with volatile oils in the leaves, stems and root bark and is steeped for tea and used as a flavoring. It is the main flavor in the production of root beer.
Root beer is available almost everywhere. It can be purchased nationally and internationally, although some brands distribute in limited regions. Birch beer is primarily sold in the northeast part of the United States. There are manufacturers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey who distribute mainly to the Mid-Atlantic states and New England, although some birch beer may be found outside these areas.