I’ve already taken a look at three of the ingredients most frequently included in Root Beer, Sassafras, Sarsaparilla, and Birch Bark, a fourth essential ingredient is Wintergreen.

Wintergreen originally came from a small perennial herb native to the North Eastern portions of the United States. According the the Canadian Forestry Association quoted below, it was the original source of the active ingredient in Aspirin. People’s in North America, prior to the arrival of Europeans, brewed a tea from it and used it to treat a variety of symptoms, from respiratory infections to headaches. When tea became scarce during the North American Colonists’ rebellion against England, they adopted the practices of the Native Americans and brewed an infusion from it. With it’s delicious flavor and variety of therapeutic uses, Wintergreen eventually found its way into the originally medicinal elixirs which we now call Sarsaparilla and Root Beer.

As noted below, Wintergreen Oil and Sweet Birch Oil are essentially identical chemically, so if you’re using one, you probably don’t need to use the other in your Root Beer, especially since it seems to be pretty impossible to find sweet birch bark available commercially. If you’ve got a Sweet Birch (Betula lenta) in your backyard, give making it from scratch a try and let me know how it works out.

Sweet Birch

Wintergreen entry from Your Local Wildwood Pharmacy, Canadian Forestry Association website.

“It is as a medicinal herb that wintergreen is best known. Oil of wintergreen, distilled from the leaves, is composed primarily of methyl salicylate, a poison if used in large quantities. Minute amounts of this oil are used in flavouring toothpaste and other dental products, candy and lozenges. Aspirin, the most widely used drug after tobacco and caffeine, was originality extracted from wintergreen. When the poison (methyl) is removed from the oil, the crystalline material left behind is acetylsalicylic acid, the effective ingredient in aspirin.

“As well as oil, the leaves of wintergreen contain a compound called arbutin. This material is more stable when it is heated than when it is cold, meaning that it retains its medicinal qualities when heated or rubbed into muscles for treating various aches and pains including rheumatism. A few drops of wintergreen oil on a soft cloth and placed on the brow is a common time-proven cure for headaches. As well, the stems of the plant are chewed by people around the world to prevent tooth decay.”

Wintergreen entry from A Modern Herbal, by M. Greive, circa 1900.

“Botanical: Gaultheria procumbens (LINN.)

“—Synonyms—Teaberry. Boxberry. Mountain Tea. Checkerberry. Thé du Canada. Aromatic Wintergreen. Partridge Berry. Deerberry.
“—Part Used—Leaves.
“—Habitat—Northern United States from Georgia to Newfoundland; Canada.

“—Description—A small indigenous shrubby, creeping, evergreen plant, growing about 5 to 6 inches high under trees and shrubs, particularly under evergreens such as Kalmias and Rhododendrons. It is found in large patches on sandy and barren plains, also on mountainous tracts. The stiff branches bear at their summit tufts of leaves which are petiolate, oval, shiny, coriaceous, the upper side bright green, paler underneath. The drooping white flowers are produced singly from the base of the leaves in June and July, followed by fleshy, bright red berries (with a sweetish taste and peculiar flavour), formed by the enlargement of the calyx. The leaves were formerly official in the United States Pharmacopoeia, but now only the oil obtained from them is official, though in some parts the whole plant is used. The odour is peculiar and aromatic, and the taste of the whole plant astringent, the leaves being particularly so.

“—Constituents—The volatile oil obtained by distillation and to which all the medicinal qualities are due, contains 99 per cent Methyl Salicylate: other properties are 0.3 of a hydrocarbon, Gaultherilene, and an aldehyde or ketone, a secondary alcohol and an ester. To the alcohol and ester are due the characteristic odour of the oil. The oil does not occur crudely in the plant, but as a nonodorous glucoside, and before distillation, the leaves have to be steeped for twelve to twenty-four hours for the oil to develop by fermentation – a reaction between water and a neutral principle: Gaultherin.

“—Medicinal Action and Uses—
Tonic, stimulant, astringent, aromatic. Useful as a diuretic and emmenagogue and for chronic mucous discharges. Is said to be a good galactogogue. The oil of Gaultheria is its most important product. It has all the properties of the salicylates and therefore is most beneficial in acute rheumatism, but must be given internally in capsules, owing to its pungency, death from inflammation of the stomach having been known to result from frequent and large doses of it. It is readily absorbed by the skin, but is liable to give rise to an eruption, so it is advisable to use for external application the synthetic oil of Wintergreen, Methyl Salicylate, or oil from the bark of Betula lenta, which is almost identical with oil of Gaultheria. In this form, it is a very valuable external application for rheumatic affections in all chronic forms of joint and muscular troubles, lumbago, sciatica, etc. The leaves have found use as a substitute for tea and as a flavouring for genuine tea. The berries form a winter food for animals, partridges, deer, etc. They have been used, steeped in brandy, to produce a bitter tonic taken in small quantities. The oil is a flavouring agent for tooth powders, liquid dentifrices, pastes, etc., especially if combined with menthol and eucalyptus.”

Jackson Hole Buckin’ Root Beer

Summer 2013 Root Beer Project, Post 20

Jackson Hole Root Beer.

Jackson Hole Root Beer.

Ingredients: Carbonated Water, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Quillaia Extract, Caramel Color, Red #40, Citric Acid, and Sodium Benzoate (To Preserve Flavor).

Yow, quite a shock to go back to commercial Root Beer after mostly drinking home-made for a few days.

“We’re probably most proud of our multiple Award-Winning Jackson Hole Soda Co.”Buckin’ Rootbeer” – the taste that won the West! Made with real sugar, premium natural flavorings, and batch-brewed to ensure the highest quality, our Rootbeer is made with care and attention to detail that reminds folks of the rich, heady Rootbeer Grandma used to make. Some folks enjoy our Buckin’ Rootbeer so much, they buy it by the keg. We’ve even heard of one little Buckaroo that loves Buckin’ Rootbeer on his pancakes!

“Recipe Ideas: Excellent with BBQ spare ribs, pulled-pork, hamburgers, pizza and everything else! The absolute BEST Rootbeer ever created for Rootbeer Floats. (Don’t believe it? Give it a try!)”

I struggle to find anything other than Wintergreen in this Root Beer, it’s a full on Wintergreen bomb. I get some vanilla and other flavors later, but mostly in after-taste.

The folks at the Fizzary said this was a favorite among many of their Root Beer buying customers. I guess Wintergreen is popular with the kids. To me, it’s too much.

3 1/2 Barrels out of 5.

Birch Beer/Birch Bark

Regarding Birch Beer, I’ve been just a tad confused.

Apparently, Birch sap is similar to Maple sap and a syrup can be made from it which can be fermented and turned into beer, wine, or spirits. However, the sugar levels in Birch Sap are much lower than that of Maple, so the yield is less per gallon.

So, I was initially confused as regards whether Birch Sap or Birch Bark/Extract was used in Birch or Root Beer.

I think the most important quote below is, “Birch Tar oil is almost identical with Wintergreen oil.” As Wintergreen is often considered a substitute for Sassafras in Root Beer, thus Birch Bark or Birch Bark Extract could also be.

In conclusion, while it is possible that Birch Sap has been used to make beer in the US, it is much more likely that Root Beer calls for Birch Bark or Birch Bark Extract.

EDIT: Final Twist!

It appears Birch Beer/Birch Beer Extract is made from the bark/branches of the American Birch species, Black Birch (Cherry Birch,Sweet Birch), Betula lenta, not the European species White Birch, Betula alba, or Paper Birch, Betula papyrifera. The small twigs of Black Birch are known for their Wintergreen flavor, while Betula alba is more camphorous. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that Black Birch Bark is available from any online suppliers I can find.

As noted below, Wintergreen Oil and Sweet Birch Oil are essentially identical chemically, so if you’re using one, you probably don’t need to use the other in your Root Beer, especially since it seems to be pretty impossible to find sweet birch bark available commercially. If you’ve got a Sweet Birch (Betula lenta) in your backyard, give making it from scratch a try and let me know how it works out.

Sweet Birch

From a Modern Herbal, Circa 1931, Mrs. M. Grieve,

White Birch

Birch Beer:

“When the stem of the tree is wounded, a saccharine juice flows out which is susceptible, with yeast, of vinous fermentation. A beer, wine, spirit and vinegar are prepared from it in some parts of Europe. Birch Wine, concocted from this thin, sugary sap of the tree, collected from incisions made in the trees in March, honey, cloves and lemon peel being added and then the whole fermented with yeast, makes a very pleasant cordial, formerly much appreciated. From 16 to 18 gallons of sap may be drawn from one large tree, and a moderate tapping does no harm.”

Birch Bark, Contituents:

“Birch bark only contains about 3 per cent. of tannic acid, but is extensively used for tanning, wherever there are large birch forests, throughout Northern Europe. As it gives a pale colour to the skin, it is used for the preliminary and the final stages of tanning. It contains betulin and betuls camphor.

“The leaves contain betulorentic acid.

“By destructive distillation, the white epidermis of the bark yields an empyreumatic oil, known variously in commerce as oil of Birch Tar, Oleum Rusci, Oleum Betulinum or Dagget. This is a thick, bituminous, brownish-black liquid, with a pungent, balsamic odour. It contains a high percentage of methylsalicylate, and also creosol and guaiacol. The Rectified Oil (Oleum Rusci Rectificatum) is sometimes substituted for oil of Cade.

“Birch Tar oil is almost identical with Wintergreen oil. It is not completely soluble in 95 per cent. acetic acid, nor in aniline, but Turpentine oil dissolves it completely.

Western Medicinal Use:

“Various parts of the tree have been applied to medicinal uses. The young shoots and leaves secrete a resinous substance having acid properties, which, combined with alkalies, is said to be a tonic laxative. The leaves have a peculiar, aromatic, agreeable odour and a bitter taste, and have been employed in the form of infusion (Birch Tea) in gout, rheumatism and dropsy, and recommended as a reliable solvent of stone in the kidneys. With the bark they resolve and resist putrefaction. A decoction of them is good for bathing skin eruptions, and is serviceable in dropsy.

“The oil is astringent, and is mainly employed for its curative effects in skin affections, especially eczema, but is also used for some Internal maladies.

“The inner bark is bitter and astringent, and has been used in intermittent fevers.

“The vernal sap is diuretic.

“Moxa is made from the yellow, fungous excrescences of the wood, which sometimes swell out from the fissures.”

Birch History in North America

“White birch bark was a traditional treatment used by Native Americans in tea and other beverages to treat stomach and intestinal problems that included diarrhea and dysentery.”

“White birch bark contains aspirin-like compounds and should not be used by anyone sensitive to aspirin.”