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Cracking Open a Bottle of Calgary’s Past

2020-07-24 23:54:55

For part of each week, I help put together The Times’s live briefing on the pandemic, which continues to ravage the United States and cause worrying outbreaks in Canada, where things are otherwise significantly better.

But the pandemic isn’t all grim destruction. It’s inspiring new interests and resurrecting some too. That’s currently the case in Calgary, where one man’s fascination with a remnant of the city’s past has captured its imagination.

It began late last month when Paul Fairie’s plans for a walk were thwarted by rain. Stuck inside, Mr. Fairie, a researcher and political science instructor at the University of Calgary, revisited one of his hobbies: reading old newspapers online.

The front page of the Calgary Weekly Herald from September 28, 1883 started off its local news section with a cryptic entry of one simple word: “Cronk.”

Credit…University of Alberta Libraries

The mystery didn’t stop there. Sprinkled throughout the front page — like the repetitive ads that clutter 21st-century web pages — there were several more entries, including “Dr. Cronk,” “Cronk is Good,” “Buy Cronk,” “Cronk is the drink” and “Cronk is made at the Star Bakery.”

Dr. Fairie had come across very brief ads inserted into articles many times before. But these one-word ads intrigued him.

“What really drew my eye was the one that was just ‘Cronk’,” he told me. “I was like, This really isn’t enough detail at all.”

Dr. Fairie doesn’t just read old newspapers, he also frequently posts oddities from them on Twitter. They have included a salad recipe that uses four doughnuts as its principal ingredient.

So onto Twitter went Cronk.

“I thought people would like it and that would be the end of it in an hour,” Dr. Fairie said. He had badly underestimated the power of Cronk.

First, Dr. Fairie started receiving bits of Cronk lore from antique bottle collectors, an avid group that was well-versed in Cronk packaging if not the beverage itself.

Someone sent Dr. Fairie a recipe for “Dr. Cronk’s Sarsaparilla Beer” through Twitter. He didn’t make it. Requiring 100 gallons of water, the recipe was for Cronk on an industrial scale rather than for anyone’s kitchen.

But as the Cronk discussion grew this month, Dr. Fairie made it his pandemic project as he began piecing together all he could find out about the long-forgotten drink.

He put all of that into a 16 minute video that some have praised as the finest YouTube offering by a Canadian about a forgotten 19th-century beverage.

Here’s the brief version: Cronk appears to have been created in 1839 by Warren Cronk, a soda water maker from Albany, N.Y. Within nine years, he had franchised his creation across much of North America. By the time the enigmatic ads appeared in the Calgary Weekly Herald, Dr. Fairie said that the company was most likely headed by another Warren Cronk, probably the founder’s son. The second Warren Cronk was also in the soda water trade and lived mainly in my hometown, Windsor, Ontario, although he sometimes bounced across the river to Detroit.

It’s unclear if either of them had even the slightest claim to the title of doctor.

You’ll have to watch Dr. Fairie’s video to learn about Cronk’s role in the Hippodrome War of 1853. There’s not enough space here.

Calgary did indeed have a Star Bakery for about a decade and it marked its loaves with stars. From what Dr. Fairie can gather, Frank Claxton, the owner, was also an unsuccessful municipal political candidate who eventually left town.

The original age of Cronk appears to have ended around 1910, more than a century before the new one dawned.

Dr. Fairie’s digital news clippings have led to the creation of a Cronk T-shirt, which is being sold to raise money for a charity. Perhaps more important, the drink is being resurrected. A microbrewery in Calgary’s Inglewood neighborhood is brewing 800 liters of it, using the somewhat vague recipe Dr. Fairie received.

Blake Belding, the head brewer at Cold Garden Brewery, told me that in his quest to revive the drink he will have to use a substitute for sassafras and sarsaparilla. After buying several pounds of the items, he found that food safety laws now ban them as possible carcinogens. A neighborhood spice shop helped him concoct alternatives.

It will take another two to three weeks for the Cronk to fully ferment to eliminate any danger that its bottles will explode, Mr. Belding said.

His preliminary taste test results are not wholly encouraging.

“It’s not bad,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s something I would crush a 12-pack of on the weekend.”

And what does Dr. Fairie hope to find when he cracks open his first bottle of Cronk next month?

“I’m hoping it’s either a 10 out of 10 or a zero out of 10,” he said. “The worst case scenario would be that it would be kind of boring.”


A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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