Spruce beer, long a Quebec specialty, tastes like a rich, sugary tree
Imagine you were talking a walk through an enchanted forest on a dusky evening, breathing in the scent of evergreens as you went.
Now imagine that was a flavour you could drink from a tall, slim beer bottle. Sounds good, right?
By far the best soda on the market is by a local Montreal outfit called Henri Sodas. The company brews tiny batches of the stuff, available in a few dépanneurs around the city, and offers a spruce flavour that tastes like a rich, sugary tree; a root beer that’s crisp and not too sweet; and a cola that tastes like the kind of pop your vegan friend would bring over to your stoop on a hot summer day. But the spruce soda is the company’s real star, and it’s the one that the founder of Henri Sodas, Étienne Côté, has worked especially hard to return to shop counters.
Three years ago, Côté was working as a barista and manager at a coffee shop and roasters in the city’s Saint Henri neighbourhood. He was also cooking up recipes in his kitchen. He’d come across some craft soda – Fentiman’s and Boylan’s – in dépanneurs around town, and he’d been inspired to experiment with different mixes himself. For three years, he boiled and simmered, trying to make a cola that would appeal to drinkers of Coke but that would also offer them something a little bit different. He’d throw in cloves, or bergamot, or even black pepper. (That test batch had to be tossed.)
Eventually, he settled on proportions he thought were tasty and moved on to perfecting a root beer, and a spruce beer. The latter is “a Quebec classic,” he says.
“Spruce beer has a storied history in Quebec.”
Once he had developed a lineup of recipes he felt confident about, he partnered up with his boss at the café, Jean-François Leduc, to launch Henri Sodas, a line of craft soft drinks available across Montreal. The glass bottles are tall and slim, with soft, cotton-candy colours and elegant typography. For Côté, producing a spruce beer was a harkening back to the history of the province he calls home.
Spruce beer has a storied history in Quebec. In the 16th century, First Nations along the St. Lawrence River brewed an evergreen-needle-based beverage to help cure scurvy, a remedy that was later picked up by the British navy. Their drink was an actual alcoholic one, with spruce replacing the hops of an ordinary beer.
In 1898, Montreal’s Émile Bertrand restaurant debuted a soft drink by the same name, though it wasn’t known for its sugary flavour. (Recipe: Boil seven pounds of spruce, until the bark peels off. Add three gallons of molasses and some yeast before putting it in a barrel for two or three days.)
“I thought it was a nice idea to bring it back.”
The province’s traditional drink experienced a cultural resurgence in the 1940s and ’50s. Rumour has it that some Quebec families were brewing up batches of the stuff in their bathtubs. But the soda faded from prominence after the 1980s. Back then, a popular brand called Marco was discovered to have been accidentally including alcohol in what it was marketing as a non-alcoholic soda. Parents across the province weren’t pleased that their children had been downing what was effectively a light beer.
Côté remembers drinking spruce beer pop at home as a child growing up in Lanaudière, just north of Montreal, in the 1990s. “I found some earlier recipes when I was researching, but I didn’t follow them much because they were mostly made with molasses and spruce thrown in,” he says. “It was a bit nasty.” Instead, he developed a recipe with organic cane sugar and it’s become the company’s most popular flavour in the year and a half that Henri Sodas has been in business. “I wanted to bring back the old-school flavour and find a modern way of doing it,” he says. “I thought it was a nice idea to bring it back.”
You can get your own taste of Quebec in shops across Montreal. The company also plans to open its Ontario Street factory facilities to visitors in the coming months.