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What’s the Difference Between Root Beer, Birch Beer and Sarsaparilla?

What do root beer, birch beer and sarsaparilla have in common? According to those guys selling miracle cures from the backs of wagons and 19th-century pharmacies, all of them claimed to cure whatever ails ya. They’re also delicious, and many would argue they have similar tastes. So, what is the difference between root beer, birch beer and sarsaparilla? While none of these are technically “beers” some of the originals were mildly alcoholic.

Root Beer Champions

Back in my growing-up days, I have wonderful memories of excursions to the nearest A&W restaurant to get a frosty (literally) mug of root beer with a scoop or two of vanilla ice cream plunked within. A properly constructed root beer float is ecstasy. A&W was a fixture in the fast-food and treats business back in the day, at one point having more stores than McDonald’s when they peaked at 2,400 or so back in the 70s.

While we’re on the topic of the largest purveyor of root beer, you’d be correct if you referred to the company as Allen & Wright, as Roy Allen and Frank Wright founded the company back in 1919, expanding from a roadside stand offering—you guessed it—root beer.

There’s another beguiling story about A&W. Back in the 80s, they took on the notorious “Quarter Pounder” by offering a better-tasting one-third-pound burger at a lower price per pound. Company executives were buying timeshares and booking cruises, confident in their plan to crush the Golden Arches before they figured out the public wasn’t very good with fractions. The burger never really took off because too many people assumed the 1/4-pound burger was bigger than the 1/3-pound burger—because, you know, four is more than three.

Besides being a likely contender for the oldest fast-food chain, some claim the company also invented the bacon cheeseburger, but that one is admittedly hard to prove. Regardless, we’re glad to see A&W making somewhat of a comeback.

Now, on to the best soft drinks ever invented…

Root Beer

Root beer is one of those product named quite literally, at least in its original formulation. Even if most modern foods weren’t made of plastic and other such junk, root beer would have faced a dramatic change. It was originally brewed from the Sassafras tree root and its bark. Sadly, a compound within—safrole—was deemed a likely carcinogen by the FDA back in 1960, so it’s no longer used in commercial production.

Nowadays, artificial flavors are used, but that’s not as bad as it sounds, as root beer is often made with a variety of other yummy spice-like ingredients, including vanilla, licorice, wintergreen, sarsaparilla (more on that later), nutmeg, cinnamon and more.

The beverage dates back to the 1700s, as far as we know, and during the 1800s, pharmacists and snake oil salesmen offered sassafras as medicinal products. In fact, one Charles Elmer Hires (sound familiar?) started selling an extract version at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. By 1886, he was bottling and selling it as a ready-to-consume beverage. By 1898, Barq’s emerged as a serious competitor with their sarsaparilla-based version of “root beer.”

Birch Beer

With its distinctive minty flavor, most birch beers are clear, red, and sometimes brown in color. A couple are even colored blue. Connoisseurs describe a lighter, crispier and more refreshing flavor profile when compared to traditional root beer.

Often categorized in the same general class of soft drinks, Birch beer does share some common lineage in that it’s another form of “tree in a bottle.” Made from boiled Birch tree bark and oils from Birch sap, this particular beverage is most popular in the northeastern US (we’re looking at you, Pennsylvania) and Canada, although thankfully for us FanBoi types, it’s not hard to find across the country.

Like most everything else of the era, birch beer variants found their way into 19th-century pharmacies and gained some popularity for their medicinal qualities. Early versions, and some modern ones, also packed a punch. The birch syrup would be fermented with baker’s yeast to convert some of the sugars to alcohol and provide some of the distinctive fizz.

Sarsaparilla

Sarsaparilla? I always thought it was “sasparilla.” Chalk any misunderstanding up to weird pronunciation rules, kind of like “Worcestershire.” Regardless of how we say it, sarsaparilla is brewed from the South American smilax ornata vine, referred to as zarzaparilla in Spanish. In other parts of the world, you might hear similar concoctions called “sarsi.”

Sarsaparilla, in its true form, has a bolder flavor than root beer, but tastes similar. In fact, some root beers are made using sarsaparilla instead of substitutes for the now-banned sassafras root. Just to confuse the issue, US bottlers often make sarsaparilla with birch oil instead of sarsaparilla root. Are you beginning to see the source of confusion among the three beverages?

Enjoy One, Enjoy All

These days, root beer is the sibling with an independent streak, as, in part, from the death of sassafras ingredients, as the recipe varies widely between producers. You might find traces of birch and or sarsaparilla in your root beers, along with a host of other flavorings. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; just be aware you might have to shop brands to find the specific recipe you prefer. Birch and sarsaparilla blends from boutique producers tend to stray less from the original formulations.

Enjoy one or all; just don’t count on any of the modern blends curing a case of irritable bunion syndrome.

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