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.
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. It used to be something of an endangered species, but I’m happy to report that as of 2018, Marco—the most well-known of the spruce beer brands—has new distribution and is available throughout the province.
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.
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.