The Bar Cart: Canadian Spruce Beer

Part of the reason my husband’s not always so keen to go to the grocery store with me is because, if I have time to kill instead of speeding around like I’m on Supermarket Sweep, I’ll spend a good hour going up and down every aisle, looking for new products with which to experiment. But food stores, whether they’re run-of-the-mill supermarkets or tiny boutiques, always have something to offer, something for the “why not try it?” file. Case in point is the drink I found while poking around Le Marche de Saveurs, a store specializing in the foods of Quebec, while visiting Montreal a few years ago: spruce beer.

marco spruce beer
Unlike the molasses- and hops-tinged versions that craft brewers have returned to lately, this one’s a non-alcoholic soda. The closest approximation in taste is a piney ginger ale or 7-Up: it’s got strong juniper overtones with a pure sugar-sweet finish. It’s simple and clean; I don’t find it to be Pine-Sol clean, to which some haters compare it, but light and refreshing. If you like basic gin and club soda, you’ll probably be down with spruce beer.

Spruce beer soda is difficult to find outside Quebec; it needs to remain under refrigeration—if not, it somehow breaks its seal and leaks sticky soda onto everything in its path, as happened when I left mine unrefrigerated for a bit and suffered the consequences. And it may become more of an endangered species soon, as I discovered while researching this piece. Marco, the most commonly found bottler in the Francophone province, no longer has a functioning website (breuvagesmarco.com) and calls to its headquarters are left unanswered. Sprucebeer.ca suggests a few other Canadian brands like Compliments, Kiri, and Selection, though they’re just as elusive in terms of wide distribution as Marco is/was(?).

If you’re in Montreal, you can also try the locally famous Emile Bertrand brand (the recipe for which does involve molasses, like many of the alcoholic versions), which is brewed for the Paul Patates diner.

marco spruce beer
And though it’s virtually unknown in the U.S., there is an American version out there: Empire Bottling Works, a teeny tiny soda producer in Bristol, RI, makes its own spruce beer, which seems easier to track down—fewer miles for this Jersey resident to travel, and at least I don’t need a passport to get it—than the Canadian standard.

If you’re feeling slightly ambitious and want to make your own, the method is fairly straightforward, as long as you’ve got some green spruce tips. Spruce tips aren’t the long, needled branches of the tree that most of us imagine, but the small green buds on the ends of each branch that resemble nascent pinecones (or hops, for those of us who home brew). Simmer the spruce in water to extract its flavor, then add sugar for sweetness and yeast or baking soda for carbonation. Mother Earth Living has a recipe. Once you’ve got a bottle—or tracked one down via your Canadian friends—shake it up with a spruce beer margarita.

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Comments

    • Casey BarberCasey Barber says

      Amber, good thing I left a bottle (unrefrigerated, of course) on your counter this weekend! Get to it!

    • Casey BarberCasey Barber says

      Aimee, I definitely think you should mix some with gin. You know, just as a science experiment. :)

  1. says

    Thanks for mentioning my site, SpruceBeer.ca. I found this article when searching for information about the status of Breuvages Marco.

    FYI, Compliments and Selection are not elusive at all! They are in fact incredibly easy to find anywhere in Quebec. Compliments and Selection are the private label brand names owned by the Sobeys and Metro grocery stores, respectively. You will be able to find them almost anywhere in Quebec.

  2. Daniel says

    Bear in mind that the spruce beer from Compliments and Selection is nothing like the Marco spruce beer. The formers are more like the sugary carbonated pop alongside the others such as Coke or 7Up. However, it still tastes different. Living in Toronto but having been raised in Montreal, I bought a 12 can case from one of my trips to Montreal. Looking at the information on the box, I was surprised to find out that it was actually produced in Mississauga, Ontario. However, I became very irate when I contacted the company and was emailed that we can’t buy any of it from the Mississauga location nor can we put in an order from a local Metro store! Wish they would have like an outlet available to the public!

  3. Joe Delia says

    As a youngster growing up in Connecticut in the early 70’s, my relatives from Quebec would bring spruce beer (biere d’epinette) with them when visiting us from Canada. Most of my family didn’t care for it, but I loved it, and typically hoarded the entire lot. As the years passed my relatives visited less often, and I was never able to find the soda locally. In the late 90’s however, I did find on the internet that spruce beer being sold by the Empire Bottling Works in Bristol, RI. As luck would have it, my daughter happened to be a student at Roger Williams University at the time, which is also in Bristol. I stopped by the small bottling plant one day on a trip to visit my daughter, and it was closed. I tried calling them, but did not get an answer, or a return call when I left messages on their answering machine. Thought I was out of luck, but decided to drop by one last time right before my daughter’s graduation, and there was someone at the plant. When I explained what I was looking for, I was received with a sideways glance which read something like, “Really??”. They said they would look to see if they had any. Well, they did have just one case in stock, and after wiping of the dust I paid them what I think was around $15.00 and went on my way. The spruce beer was not very good, and not even close to resembling the delicious soda from Montreal. There was no consistency from bottle to bottle, with one being sweeter than the other. There was even a difference in clarity, with one being as clear as Sprite, and the other resembling something more like Mountain Dew. The last bottle I tried even had a sickeningly sweet orange flavor, which I attributed to the probablity of less than hygienic recycling methods. I opted not to drink the few remaining bottles after that. Overall, I would skip the whole Empire Bottling Works product. In the past couple of years I have tried a couple other spruce beer options that friends have brought back from Montreal. Even the less than steller product made by President’s Choice is a viable option. But if ever in the Quebec area, try to find the real thing (sorry Coke).