'Cronk rules everything around me': long-lost beverage resurrected after 120 years

A chance discovery in a newspaper archive has left drinkers in Canada and beyond salivating at the prospect of – finally – getting their hands on some Cronk.

More than a century after it was last consumed, beverage connoisseurs will soon be able to enjoy Dr Cronk’s Compound Sarsaparilla Beer, after internet sleuths and real-world brewers recovered a drink that was once wildly popular across North America but vanished into obscurity.

The 2020 Cronk revival can be traced back to the university researcher Paul Fairie, who recently tweeted about a series of bizarre adverts he had found in an 1882 copy of the Calgary Herald.

Embedded in the columns of newsprint, the copy was blunt and simple:

Buy Cronk.

Cronk is good.

Cronk is the drink.

“It just seemed so modern,” said Fairie. “Not at all like ads in other cities at the time, that are a lot wordier and a lot more descriptive of the product.”

Fairie posted the images to his Twitter account and before long, the word “Cronk” began trending on Canadian Twitter.

Others found more adverts, as well as images as the ornate bottles it was sold in – and eventually an online copy of The Handbook of Practical Receipts, an 1860 work that included the Cronk recipe.

A Cronk bottle. A Cronk bottle. Photograph: Dr Cronk

The flurry of interest has now prompted a Calgary brewery to make the first batch of Cronk in more than 120 years.

“Once upon a time, I would have wished that I had the power to bring Cronk back to life,” said Blake Belding, head brewer at Cold Garden. “But then I realized that I did have the power to bring Cronk back to life. So I went ahead and ordered the ingredients.”

The recipe calls for sassafras, sarsaparilla, hops, chamomile, cinnamon, ginger, green tea and molasses, said Belding. “I think it’s going to taste like a spicy root beer. I’ve never really used molasses and there’s a lot of ginger in there, so it’ll kick.”

The first 800-litre (211-gallon) batch should be ready in two weeks – just as well, because Belding has been inundated with orders, including requests from the UK and US.

“Cronk rules everything around me right now,” he said.

The first known mention of the drink was in an 1840 advert from Syracuse, New York, which credits its invention to one Warren Cronk, 25.

It clearly caught on. Writing in the Syracuse Daily Star six years later, a doctor praised it “as healthful, and very desirable as a Temperance drink”.

But it was considered a “small beer” – and was probably mildly alcoholic. Belding estimates that modern Cronk will have around 3-4% alcohol content.

Cronk began franchising out production, and by the late 1880s, the drink was available throughout the United States and Canada.

“I don’t know if it will ever be possible to trace all the cities and the influence that Warren Cronk has had with his ‘Compound Sarsaparilla Beer’,” wrote Thomas Kanalley in the December 2010 issue of the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors’s monthly newsletter. (Bottle collectors have long sought out the hand-blown vessels in which it was once sold.)

It is not clear why Cronk’s empire crumbled, but Kanalley suspects he fell victim to one of the depressions that hit North America in the late 19th century. “The soda trade was very vulnerable to downturns in the economy, which happened frequently. Most people did not have money for luxuries. A soda business could easily get in financial trouble,” he wrote.

If history is any indication, the drink’s arrival is perfectly timed for the summer.

“Warm weather is expected about these days, and Dr. Cronk’s delicious and healthful beverage will be in great demand,” said one advertisement from a Cleveland newspaper in 1848.

While tastes have changed over the years, including a shift in preference to lighter, more aromatic drinks in the heat, Belding isn’t worried.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to be disappointed,” he said. “Dr Cronk knew what he was doing and if we follow the instructions, we’re going to come up with a winner.”

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