birch

A younger Richard Shaner distills “birch oil” during the Folk Festival season in the backwoods of the “Oley Hills.”

As a historian I was eager when I came across early local Pennsylvania maps which gave the locations of Birch oil distilleries, a pioneer occupation among PA Dutch farmers. But growing up on wooded frontier lands of the surrounding area, I was not surprised to find historic local families who involved in this trade, one being the Fox family who had a Birch oil distillery outside of Dryville, Rockland Township.

As a youthful woods enthusiast who tasted the sweet birch properties of tasty young Black Birch twigs scouting in the forest, I was aware that a tea could be made with them if brewed in water, like Sassafras roots and a number of North American aromatic trees. Sharing a family who were naturalists and enjoyed the woods, we often curiously chewed on sweet twigs of Black Birch trees.

But not until I met Richard “Dick” Shaner and other local natives did I realize the importance of Pennsylvania’s Black Birch Tree harvests in the spring of the year and learn more of the history behind it.

Timber firms would solicit landowners to sell them their young native black Birch trees with the theory being that these numerous young Birch trees were crowding out the growth of the more valuable trees like oaks and tulip poplar trees.

I do remember many a local family during reunion gatherings in addition to a keg of beer or two picked up an additional quarter keg of Birch Beer at the Kutztown Bottling Works for their children, a favorite beverage of summertime in yesteryear.

As Dick’s grandmother, Mary Bieber, inherited a large amount of forested land in Rockland and District townships, she too was in need of paying real estate taxes on green land, which did not earn her any income.

So like other landholders in Rockland Township, she also sold the large amount of young Black Birch Trees on her property to the local Birch Oil Distillery. It was such a large amount of land (over 100 acres) I was told, it was certainly worth the effort for Kermit Kemmerer to send his trucks up from Barto where his Birch Oil Distillery was located, Dick recalled.

However, Birch Beer was only one use for which a New York firm acquired his Birch Oil. Wintergreen uses had far outnumbered the lucrative value in which Birch Oil had become in demand by the public.

Since Donald Bieber (Barney) was one of the two brothers who owned the Kutztown Bottling Works before his son, “Spike” took over who I was familiar with, I became more than a casual historian interested in the quality of Kutztown Birch Beer, and realized that it contained real Birch Beer flavoring.

During the mid-1990s when I linked up with Mr. Shaner and the American Folklife Institute I got a chance to work with the historic Stein Whiskey Still Dick acquired from a bootlegger up in the Oley Hills near Landis Store.

So we decided to operate this antique Kutztown distillery unit by cutting birch branches up to be distilled in water the old fashioned way, and to serve Kutztown’s locally made quality birch beer soda to festival goers and for several years!

A quality native Birch Beer soda, the Kutztown Birch Beer once made in Kutztown by the Kutztown Bottling Works Company, formerly owned by two Bieber brothers, was an instant success, unlike some inferior Birch Beer brands made in New England, or even a strange blue colored birch beer concoction they made up in McAdoo, Schuylkill County!

Although young Birch trees were the prime source of Birch oil, medium Birch trees crowding out the growth of oak and poplar trees were cut down and their bark tumbled off and distilled with younger branches. Often the tree trunks of debarked Birch trees were dried and sold for fireplace logs in wintertime.

The Birch Oil trucks that were loaded with Birch branches did have a distinctive aroma in the early springtime, but not nearly as outstanding as the smell of wintergreen that circled the town of Barto when Mr. Kermit Kemmerer, who operated his Birch oil distillery was distilling his payload in copper lined vats that were cooled by an ever flowing cold spring to condense the birch oil that I believe was heavier than the milky water exiting the Birch still.

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