There are many candidates for the best part of this wretched year. The way we all cheered and clapped for health-care workers from our balconies. The actual health-care workers themselves. The “Ratatouille” TikTok musical. The countless times people came together in hardship.
But allow me to submit my frontrunner for the best thing of all in 2020 — a160-year-old molasses drink called Cronk.
Why? Well, to start, Cronk is the drink.
The historic beverage went through a revival this year, thanks to keen Twitter sleuthing, community effort and a little bit of luck. And the joy it sparked for people in Alberta — and for me — was incomparable in a year that felt so absent of silly things like this. 2020 sucked, but at least we got to experience Cronk.
The story of Cronk
It all started in June, when University of Calgary researcher Paul Fairie pulled up clips from an 1883 edition of the Calgary Herald documenting something called “Cronk.”
Interspersed throughout the paper’s news tidbits are simple, very short advertising lines:
“Cronk is good.”
“Cronk is the drink.”
Fairie — and plenty of Twitter users — found the ads humorous.
“Honestly, I think part of it is just the word,” he told the Toronto Star in June “The first ad just says, ronk, and I was like, ‘Of course, I’m gonna look into this.’”
And then, something magical happened. People started pitching in their own Cronk research.
Soon, an image of Dr. Cronk’s Sarsparilla Beer started to form. A molasses, root beer-like beverage that came in a green bottle. It was widely promoted as an alternative during prohibition — beer that tasted like beer, with little alcoholic content. The drink was marketed as as “Genuine Compound Sarsaparilla Beer, for purifying the blood,” because at the time sarsaparilla was believed to cure all sorts of things.
The man of the hour, Dr. Cronk himself, was Warren Cronk, a New York businessman who first developed the drink in 1840. By the 1880s, Cronk had become popular across Canada, according to researcher Thomas Kanalley. The drink became a cultural phenomenon, even back then and was seen as a sign of status.
If you bought Cronk in Salt Lake City, there was even a song you got to sing.
But, like many things, it eventually faded from popularity. By the 1920s, Cronk was gone.
Let’s make some Cronk
Fairie’s thread, and subsequent sleuthing from other researchers, caused Cronk to trend on Twitter in June. Then, only a day after Fairie first alerted the world to the existence of Cronk, the Cronk jackpot was hit.
On June 22, Twitter user Jennifer Davis shared the recipe for Cronk. Turns out Cronk is made of sassafras, sarsaparilla, hops, chamomile, cinnamon, ginger, green tea, and molasses. The recipe was by the barrel, and had to be scaled down, but Cronk was possible.
The next logical step was to make Cronk, and Calgary micro-brewery Cold Garden announced they were taking on the task on June 24.
Within three days, the wider world went from not knowing anything about Cronk, to actual Cronk production.
Cold Garden’s testing took time, and during that time, the cult of Cronk grew. There were shirts, with proceeds going to assist Calgary-based food charities. Fairie made appearances in media outlets around the world, with U.K.-based The Guardian’s story on him and Cronk among the outlet’s most read.
Others set out to recreate Cronk. A brewery in Ottawa started on the quest, and the YouTube cooking show Glen & Friends Cooking made a batch at home.
These early examples came with the caveat that Cronk wasn’t necessarily … good, when it came to modern tastes. But it was the drink, and people did press on. On July 9, the first batch of Cronk was brewed at Cold Garden.
That batch was “messed up” though, according to brewers. They made the mistake of using blackstrap molasses instead of fancy molasses.
“It turns out that blackstrap molasses does not taste very good when you ferment all the sugar out of it, so we had like 800 litres of a really bad-tasting Cronk, which is like the last thing we needed in the world right now,” head brewer Blake Belding told the CBC at the time. “And when we first brewed it, we said about two weeks. And then we tasted that first batch and we’re like, ‘I think we’re gonna need another two or three weeks.’”
The final version subbed out the original recipe’s inclusion of sassafras — as it’s actually illegal to put in food these days due to being both a form of narcotic and potentially carcinogenic. Cold Garden replaced it with sarsaparilla root for their version of Cronk.
In mid-August, the first (good) batch of 1,800 bottles were bottled and ready for sale. Cold Garden announced that proceeds from the sale would go to Heritage Calgary and The Alex, a non-profit focusing on health, housing and social wellness.
Then came the rush to try Cronk. The first limited run sold out within 12 hours. A month later, Cold Garden put its remaining bottle of Cronk online for sale, and people rushed to get those too.
It was Cronk mania! We even got cringey videos of politicians like Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley partaking in a little bit of Cronk.
The brewery released another batch in December, alongside “modern Cronk” — a version that is ostensibly more tasty. I had to try it. And a week before Christmas, my own shipment of Cronk and Modern Cronk arrived.
I made my partner and roommate sample it with me on Christmas Day, as we shared in a small Christmas day together. I wouldn’t describe the original Cronk as “good” per se — if you’re a fan of molasses and Jagermeister mixed together, you’d be a fan of Cronk. The Modern Cronk was much better, an ideal winter drink with a lot of warmth and spice to it — like lots of seasonal beers that come out this time of year.
But best of all was watching friends and others back in Alberta share in the Cronk too, as we all did our distanced holiday celebrations. It was the weird little commonality that made me feel a lot closer to my home and friends there.
This year sucked. But the best part about it was this dumb molasses drink and the friends we made along the way.
I’ll be raising a glass of Cronk to 2021 at midnight on Thursday. May it never die out again.