When a viral tweet stirred up new interest in a once-popular sarsaparilla drink from the 1800s, Andy Nita of Ottawa-based brewery Nita Beer Company wanted to be on the front line of the crusade. Dr. Cronk’s Sarsaparilla Beer, a century-old herbal beverage, emerged from obscurity thanks to a single tweet from University of Calgary researcher Paul Fairie.
In 1883, a drink called "Cronk" started advertising in the Calgary Herald. See if you can spot their ads. pic.twitter.com/yg3dMRDkY6
— Paul Fairie (@paulisci) June 21, 2020
The tweet captured a strikingly avant-garde set of ads that ran in the September 28, 1883 edition of The Calgary Herald.
“Cronk…. Drink Cronk.… Cronk is the drink.…”
Within 24 hours of Fairie’s tweet, crazed Cronk-chasers unearthed a recipe published in 1860. Andy Nita, owner and Chief Beer Officer of Nita Beer Company, was prompted into action when a regular of the brewery shared the instructions and urged its revival. I sat down with Nita to learn how it all came together.
“The recipe left a lot of room for interpretation,” says Nita. “So we embraced the challenge and drew from our brewing experience to make sense of vague directions like ‘scent to suit your taste.’”
“Even with the list of ingredients, we relied on educated guesswork to piece it all together,” says Nita. “We used Fuggles, a classic hop variety, since it was reflective of the time.”
The process from brewing to bottling took about four weeks. The finished product is dubbed “Dr. Ferguson’s Sarsaparilla Ale.” When asked, Nita said, “We wanted to tip our hat to Doug Ferguson, a taproom regular who put us on this crazy Cronk journey.”
The original beverage—consisting of sassafras, sarsaparilla, hops, chamomile, cinnamon, ginger, green tea, yeast, and molasses—was first concocted sometime around 1840 in Albany, New York, by one Warren Cronk.
“Dr. Cronk’s Compound Sarsaparilla Beer,” as it was originally known, was sold as a “Temperance beer” (a phrase used to describe a non-alcoholic drink during Prohibition, although there was debate over the true alcohol content). By the 1880s, localized franchisees helped the drink spread throughout North America as “a very pleasant beverage for hot summer days” and a “status symbol for the affluent public.”
A century and a half later, Cronk is still in demand.
“We sold out in two days,” says Nita. “There was a ton of local interest. We even received far-reaching requests from Germany and Czech Republic.” It was, to use a period-perfect word, a brouhaha.
So, what exactly does a 160-year-old beer taste like? Cronk is described on the Nita Beer Company’s website as “herbal, sweet, with an assertive molasses flavouring.” Nita likened it to “Jägermeister beer,” noting that “the botanical-blend gave herbal, almost medicinal, characteristics to the drink.”
Customer reviews for the first bottles of 21st-century Cronk poured in, providing feedback to help Nita further refine the Cronk-brewing process.
Newly-decreed “Doctor” Doug Ferguson—Ottawa’s Cronk namesake—said of the new-age Cronk: “I quite like it. The molasses and cinnamon flavours are strong. It’s something to drink slowly and enjoy.”
This is not the end of the Cronk crusade for Nita Beer Company. Nita says he intends to tinker with a second release of the beverage after tweaking the recipe.
“The focus of our next release is isolating each ingredient to understand its impact on the overall flavour. We have started conversations with local producers to handcraft molasses for the next batch in order to achieve the flavour profile we are after. The goal is to build a balanced beverage and make Cronk the best it can be,” says Nita.
There is no timeline for the next Cronk release, but hopefully we won’t be kept waiting for another 160 years.
Nita Beer Company, located at 190 Colonnade Road, Unit 17, Ottawa, is open Tuesday to Saturday from 11am to 5pm. If you want to try a more “modernized” recipe, the brewery offers a wide-range of products including sours, IPAs, porters, and even kombucha.