According to Canadian-turned-Kentuckian Alex Luken, spruce beer soda tastes like a Christmas tree in a glass. As a child growing up in Montreal, Luken recalls special trips her grandfather would make out to the suburbs to buy bottles of the tree-flavored drink whenever she visited. However, today she only has one can in her fridge left from the case her daughter found on a road-trip to Canada during the spring, and it's the last can she will have until her daughter returns north again next year.
The beverage—made of boiled spruce needles—was once popular with indigenous North Americans as a cure for scurvy, though can now refer to modern alcoholic or nonalcoholic interpretations. The soda version is particularly hard to find domestically but, according to Luken, in Canada popular brands include Marco and Compliments.
... spruce beer soda tastes like a Christmas tree in a glass.
"I have not been able to find it elsewhere in the US," Luken says. "There are rumors that a Rhode Island bottling company makes it, but I haven't been able to find anyone that stocks it."
Luken is not alone. For Canadians living in the U.S., the craving for spruce beer soda is very real and hard to satisfy since the drink hasn't taken off here, perhaps, in part, due to its polarizing taste. While some find the beverage crisp and refreshing, others describe it as overwhelmingly piney, like downing Pine-Sol.
Jason Coleman—based out of Gadsden, Alabama—is the founder of soda podcast BevNerd, where he reviews a variety of quirky sodas. In 2011, Coleman received a gift package which included a bottle of spruce beer: "I immediately got a knockout whiff of a menthol and an evergreen tree-like aroma. The soda itself was very effervescent and light, with very sharp flavor. It tasted like the smell of Vicks VapoRub and pine needles." He continues, "The consistency left a film, a coating, in my mouth after swallowing ... I would try this again, although I didn't enjoy it that much. It is such a unique soda, it deserves a second sip."
Others agree that the taste is initially overwhelming, but after a few swallows their tune changes.
A commenter on the site Anthony’s Root Beer Barrel waxed poetic: "Once I moved past the first sip things quickly turned in favor of the strange pop. By the fourth gulp, and it was a gulp by that time, I was hooked. As I drained the last drop of my first spruce beer, I realized I was in love. Simply and unrepentantly in love. I now count that bizarrely wonderful pop amongst my top ten drinks."
Coleman still has the craft soda bottle in his collection which, for people who can’t get their hands on the real thing, is becoming an expensive substitute—a trophy of sorts that can be bought and sold.
Steve Barnes, operator of Facebook group All Crush Sodas (and where to get them), purchased an empty bottle of Crush spruce beer/bière d'épinette on Ebay for $25. According to Barnes, Empire Bottling Works in Bristol, R.I.—the same manufacturer that Luken mentioned—still makes the beverage. However, few details are available about the brand.
There’s a sort of Willy Wonka secrecy to Empire Bottling Works' spruce soda. On the company's answering machine message one can hear manufacturing in full steam, yet no one outside the town really knows how to find their product. Empire Bottling Works has no website or social media, and calls to their listed number are returned inconsistently.
Even members of the surrounding community are uncertain of the drink's reach. A Bristol Historical & Preservation Society employee explains that the purveyor has been family-owned since 1930 and has an annual revenue of less than $500,000. "I know bottles pop up around the office sometime," she said. "And they used to make deliveries locally, you know? I had no clue you could buy them nationally though."
Spruce beer soda options in America are limited. There’s Amazon, online soda retailer Old 52, and other speciality soda websites where bottles of Empire are sold for about $2.50 each. Perhaps it’s time to start planning a road-trip to Bristol, but in the meantime, it seems Canadians in the U.S. will continue to pine.