It started with a plan to put down some roots up north. Jean-François Laroche was walking through a piney forest in Quebec with his father when he first shared his desire to buy a wooded lot. Maybe one with a cabin that could be used as a sugar shack, good for boiling sap into maple, come spring. But his dad was dismissive of the idea. “He was like, ‘Spruce is good for nothing,’” recounts Laroche. “So that’s kind of the founding story.” A few years later, his artisanal spruce beer operation, La P’tite Bière D’épinette, was up and running.
Laroche remembers ordering spruce beers as a kid from roadside fry shacks in rural Lanaudiere. He was able to because, despite its name, the fizzy drink contains only a meager amount of alcohol and has more in common with a root beer than an ale or stout. A gulp of spruce-tipped soda is a gulp of crisp winter air. Depending on the maker, it typically has a sharper flavor than most pop beverages, with an acquired taste that’s been described as a “liquefied Christmas tree.”
The origins of spruce beer in North America trace back to the First Nations peoples who boiled the coniferous boughs for their medicinal benefits. The evergreen elixir proved so effective in the winter of 1535, when Jacques Cartier’s crew was besieged by scurvy, that its signature ingredient was sailed back to France with the sobriquet “tree of life.” Recipes soon passed between the Old and New Worlds, a fermented yeast version—favored by French Canadians, falling into the hands of Benjamin Franklin, who home-brewed with spruce essence and molasses. Provisions issued to the British Navy were of a more hoppy persuasion, the recipe for which was noted by Jane Austen and characters in her novel Emma.
Laroche uses what he describes as an old-school French-Canadian method. Every couple of months he heads north to harvest roughly 175 pounds’ worth of fresh branches. Only 10 tips are taken per tree, to ensure no damage is done and allow for healthy regrowth. In a small Mile Ex studio in Montreal, he mixes the spruce with water, organic sugar cane, and yeast in a chemistry-intensive process that took more than two years to fine-tune. He lets each batch ferment for four to five days to create bubbles, and then removes as much yeast as possible to stabilize the brew.
“There’s always a revival of going back to the roots,” says Laroche. “The way I do it, with fresh branches, appeals a lot to restaurants that want to use local products.” He initially started brewing exclusively for Manitoba, a restaurant known for its cuisine du territoire, where he worked at the time. As more and more diners inquired into purchasing the drink to-go, he realized he was onto something. La P’tite is now available in three varieties—black spruce, balsam fir, and a seasonal white spruce—at more than 30 points of sale, including depanneurs (similar to bodegas or convenience stores) and restaurants such as Brasserie T and Montréal Plaza.
Diehards with a hankering for a nostalgic bière d’épinette go to Paul Patates, a classic snack bar in Pointe-Saint-Charles that’s been in business since 1958. The diner’s brewmaster, Barry Fleischer, uses a 121-year-old recipe that he inherited from his restaurant Émile Bertrand, which he closed soon after his wife and co-proprietor passed away in 2006. Called Bertrand, the original concoction—made with water, sugar, yeast, and spruce essence—is available only at the restaurant, either sold by the bottle or poured into a cold mug alongside french fries. “This is the way it’s supposed to be,” says Fleischer. “Not too many people still know how to make it.”
Because of the active yeast, the beer has only a three-week shelf life, and for this reason he won’t risk putting Bertrand in the hands of other vendors. “You don’t want to kill anybody,” he jokes. But he has good reason to be guarded. In 1988, spontaneous combustion of a batch caused a fire in his old restaurant. Another explosion blew the doors of his fridge through the store windows. “You really have to know what you’re doing,” he explains, adding that storage at the proper temperature is crucial.
You probably shouldn’t take a bottle on a plane either, but some people have tried. One customer came all the way from France, and despite Fleischer’s warning, took one home with him. “He sent me a picture of himself standing in front of the Eiffel Tower with a bottle of spruce beer,” Fleischer says with sideways grin.
Fleischer makes another version named Émile that he was able to give a four-month expiration date only by modifying the yeast (Dany Roy, Paul Patates’ owner, is the only person he’s let in on his secretive process). This brew has a slightly sweeter lick to it, despite no extra sugar being added, and is available in select locations across the province.
La P’tite brews are good for three months, Laroche says, and one place that always has a well-stocked supply is his father’s fridge. “Every time they have visitors over, my parents whip out some spruce beer,” he says. “My dad was partly right,” he reflects, “but after he dismissed it, I just fell down the spruce beer rabbit hole.”
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