Last of the country wine

Katie Mather goes back to the land in search of a tipple


Like many food and drink fans sequestered in lockdown without adequate stimulation, I was swept away in a brief obsession for a couple of weeks in May that seemed like a lifetime. Cronk was the name of the intoxicant, and despite never having tasted a sip, I was hooked.

Cronk, or “Dr Cronk’s Compound Sarsparilla Beer”, was a popular drink in Canada and the States in the late 1800s. Thanks to several depressions, prohibition, puritanism, changing tastes and the rise of commercial brewing in the years following the turn of the century, it started to appear on fewer shelves and in fewer pantries, and then it just disappeared, relegated to the foggy streets of the past.

But now we have the Internet, and there’s nothing we enjoy more than feeling clever while we procrastinate — it doesn’t feel like timewasting if you’re learning something. So when Paul Fairie, a researcher and instructor at the University of Calgary, found a strangely compelling advert for a drink seemingly nobody had heard of, it caused quite a stir. Drinks historians don’t tend to grab headlines so for beer geeks it really was quite exciting, but you have to remember, we didn’t really have a lot going on at the time.

According to a 19th century recipe book for tinctures, remedies and revivers called the “Hand Book of Practical Receipts; Or, Useful Hints in Every Day Life”, Cronk is made with a mixture of sassafras, sarsaparilla, hops, chamomile, cinnamon, ginger, green tea and molasses, and it’s brewed with yeast. As a result it’s expected that Cronk, despite being sold and promoted as a Temperance drink, was alcoholic — around the lower-end of 3% ABV. Not exactly alcohol-free. It seems at the time this was deemed fine as long as it was taken as a tonic, rather than enjoyed as a beverage. I find that even more interesting than the make-up of the drink itself; that the context in which alcohol is consumed can change its suitability and respectability. It reminds me of how a bloody mary is fine with breakfast, but a vodka and coke is not. (So learn from me and don’t ask, even if you agree that tomato juice is Satan’s bile.)

In a Guardian article about the find, the advertisement for Cronk is typed out loud and clear:

Buy Cronk.

Cronk is good.

Cronk is the drink.

Who could argue with that? Who would want to?

The spike of newfound interest in Cronk, which to be fair sounds absolutely delicious, has of course led brewers to have a bash at recreating the drink. At Cold Garden Brewery in Calgary they’re expecting to be the first to produce Cronk in about 120 years. I’m definitely going to be giving it a go in my own kitchen once I get my hands on all the ingredients.

However, all this talk about sassafras, ginger and camomile got me in an aromatic spin. There must be other sadly-forgotten drinks out there that are just waiting for their moment in the pale, fluorescent Internet sun.

There must be other sadly-forgotten drinks out there just waiting for their moment

I took a look through the same book as Cronk’s recipe was found, and found instructions to make “Silver Top Beer”. Taking crushed sugar and dissolving it in water, you’re then asked to add egg whites and lemon oil, whisk it all up, then add tartaric acid and bicarb. “It is a delicious drink,” it assures me.

Or how about “Fountain Drink” — a melange of ginger, Columbia root (your guess is as good as mine), camomile, nutmeg, wintergreen oil, and an ingredient noted as “cort. Amarantine”, which I’m taking to mean some variety of amaranthus, a plant with a ton of edible varieties known as callaloo in the Caribbean and tampala in India? Apparently this also is “an excellent beverage”. It sounds like it’d be great for indigestion. Not so much for a sesh.

Since I’m based in the UK and quite a lot of these historic ingredients from over the Atlantic are somewhat out of reach to me, I started thinking about the historic country wines and hedgerow boozes we’ve made here with native plants, roots and odds and ends for hundreds of years. After scouring my bookshelves I hit the jackpot with a book called “Favourite Country Wines and Cordials” that promises “nothing can beat the refreshing taste of homemade brews”.

It sounds like it’d be great for indigestion. Not so much for a sesh

Compiled by food writer Carol Wilson, quite a few of the recipes use dried fruit for extra body and a sugar boost. Smart. I particularly love the idea of “Lavender Champagne”, using exactly 40 lavender flowers, lemon juice, white wine vinegar, sugar and sultanas. It promises to be ready in a fortnight, which is another bonus. There are also delightful recipes for dainty sounding wines like rosehip, dandelion, strawberry, parsley and, er, potato. I also came across a great word: ratafia, which the Oxford English Dictionary reckons has been used to describe sweet alcoholic beverages that taste of bitter almond since at least 1699. None of the ratafias in this book are true ratafias in that case — they are made of gooseberries, cloves and cinnamon, or strawberries, sugar and vodka. It turns out that plopping Skittles into a bottle of vodka in my first year of uni was actually not too far away from being my first foray into homemade tonic wines.

So I moved on, to the irresistibly-titled “Fruity Passions”, a book that apparently accompanied a BBC TV show of the same name in 1990. A homebrew TV series on the BBC! How much would I love that? Despite your raised eyebrow, the vehicle’s drivers Margaret Vaughan and Mary Hardiman-Jones stick firmly to the plump and bountiful contents of the nation’s hedgerows. It’s a cheerful, happy sort of book, where the sun’s always shining a late afternoon bronze over the wheatfields, damsons are always in season, ripe medlars are easy to reach and the local blacksmith is only too happy to make you a tankard to pour your birthday oak wine into (this is mentioned in the introduction). Total fantasy escapism. In fact, there’s a whole chapter dedicated to the rose-tinted vision of country winemaking where the cosy, nostalgic vision of farmhouse kitchens full of wine crocks covered with linen teatowels and warmly-welcomed visitors greeted with cut-glass and homemade tasty wine. It’s such a faraway image to me that it may as well be imaginary. I’m fascinated by it.

What I also found interesting is that it seems that even in 1990 (which I hate to remind you was 30 years ago), food and drink writers like Margaret Vaughan were warning that “today’s winemaking methods” were something to be wary of:

“ danger of creating homogenised wines — all tasting almost alike... Our wines should taste different from county to county. Each region has its own particular speciality.” 

How many brewers, cider and perry makers and wine producers are stressing similar things now? How often is this central to the ethos of our favourite breweries and cider makers?

How often is this central to the ethos of our favourite breweries and cider makers?

In this incredibly useful and instructive book — it’s like being guided through every action by a patient but strict home economics teacher — there are sections on fermentation, equipment, tasting (for faults as well as judging flavours), bottling and maturing. But what about Cronk? Could there be a similarly exciting drink in Margaret’s book that I could make in the north west of England?

How about something called The Bishop? It’s a punch, made with oranges, cloves, red wine (advice is “don’t use your best”), cinnamon, ground ginger, lemonade and brandy. It doesn’t tick the Temperance box, but it sounds like a fun afternoon.

Dandelion Beer sounds more like it — whole dandelion plants, whole root ginger, whole lemon and demerara sugar. It’s not got a powerful name, but we could make one up for it. It’s all about marketing. Dr Cronk knew that.

One more example from Mrs Vaughan’s book that sounds really promising is Mrs Bray’s Fennel Wine, introduced with a quote from 17th century botanist and herbalist Nicholas Culpeper. In it is fresh, feathery fennel, dried fennel, sugar, black tea, redcurrant juice, grape juice, lemon juice and a slice of toast sprinkled with yeast (a traditional way to create a yeast starter — the yeast gets going on the bread and then enters the wine, then according to the book, you give the yeasty krausen to the hens. Which hens in particular is left unclear.)

Out of all of these, I personally think The Bishop sounds the most marketable, but if a catchy name could be created for the ginger-spiced dandelion beer, it could be the Pepsi to Cronk’s coke. Once I’ve managed to make some I’ll decide on a name. This time next year, I could be Cronk rich.

Despite our very obvious differences — Margaret Vaughan was clearly raised in Famous Five Britain whereas my experience was definitely more This Country — I feel connected to her through her writing. Mrs Vaughan’s intense and heartfelt passion for home brews comes from a place other than getting a cheap buzz on — although she freely admits that the cheap-or-free aspect is all part of the fun. In her recipes there’s a real sense of appreciation for nature and for tradition; not just for tradition’s sake, but because she knows that once skills like hers are lost, a special connection to the seasons and the natural resources around us is lost too. In a section about the many ways she uses elderberries, Margaret says:

“...our present society seems hell bent on producing complex machines and recipes, first to remove most of the vital goodness from our natural fresh resources, then to convert them into synthetic, homogenised, tasteless materials for our consumption, I make no apologies for including a few tips which help me to swim against the tide.”

Once skills like hers are lost, a special connection to the seasons and the natural resources around us is lost too

Almost every organic produce supplier and every natural wine, cider and perry maker is making these same points now. To Margaret Vaughan, ecological issues weren’t the reason for foraging, making do and mending, for her the skills of homebrewing, preserving and bottling were essential ways to gather the most from the world around you, to enjoy life more and to squeeze every bit of use out of every season. If she were around today no doubt she herself would see the connection between working with nature and caring for our environment. I think it would also have been interesting to talk with her about the communal aspect of country wine making, something she speaks about often in her descriptions of wine making and ingredient collection.

The Sorrel Punch recipe she includes is perhaps the best example of this in the book. A traditional Trinidadian Christmas drink full of sorrel, orange peel, rum, cloves and Angostura bitters, Margaret talks about how she was taught how to make this drink by two sisters named in the book as Shirley and Germaine whom she met in London. She says:

“Now we can broaden our experience with the world in our glass, mixing traditions with that most important ingredient of loving friendship.”

A wine-warmed message of peace, sharing and unity. Is that our Cronk-beating tagline? I think so.

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