The story of Spruce Beer is as old as Canada itself. At least European Canada.
While on his second voyage during the winter of 1535 Jacques Cartier and his crew were stranded near Quebec City. Their ships were frozen in ice and they wouldn’t be able to return to France until the spring.
With a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables available Cartier’s crew began to succumb to what we now know was scurvy. Almost the entire crew became sick. It was only with the help of the local Iroquois that Cartier’s crew survived.
They taught Cartier and his men how to brew a tea using the branches of a coniferous tree that they called Anneda. His men got better. They started calling the tree, not Anneda, but ‘Arbre de Vie’ or ‘Tree of Life.’
Scurvy is caused by a deficiency in vitamin C. Coniferous trees are a good source of vitamin C which is why Cartier and his men got better. The body is able to store 1,500 mg of ascorbic acid (vitamin C). It is used up at an average rate of 3% per day. After three months of vitamin C deprivation, the stores become largely depleted.
The exact identity of the Anneda tree has been lost. There are a number of trees that it could have been; eastern white cedar, white spruce, black spruce, eastern white pine, red pine, balsam fir, eastern hemlock or even juniper.
There is evidence that the Scandinavians arrived at the same discovery themselves and were already making spruce beer in Europe. “Ancient Scandinavians and their Viking descendants brewed beer from young shoots of Norway spruce, drinking the beer for strength in battle, for fertility and to prevent scurvy on long sea voyages.” However, it is hard to say if this knowledge ever reached the English or French.
The exact date which spruce beer caught on is unknown. But by the middle of the eighteenth century it appears both British and French troops had adopted the practice of adding spruce to their beer in an attempt to prevent scurvy.
By 1749 we know that the French were making spruce beer. Perh Kalm a Swedish-Finnish botanist who visited New France left an account of the production of spruce beer.
“After having put the cutting of the pine into the water, they lay some of the cones of the tree amongst it, for the gum which is contained in them, is thought very wholesome; and makes the beer better….. While it is boiling they take some wheat, put it into the pan over the fire, and roast it as we do coffee; till it is almost black; all the while stirring, shaking and turning it about in the pan, when that is done they throw it into the copper with some burnt bread.
Rye is as fit for this purpose as wheat; barley is better than either, and Indian corn is better than barley. The reasons given me for putting this burnt corn and bread into the water are first, and chiefly to give it a brownish colour like malt liquor; second to make it more palatable; third, to make it something more nourishing.
When it has continued boiling till half the quantity only of the water remains in the copper, the pine is taken out and thrown away, and the liquor is poured into a vessel, thro’ a sieve of hair cloth, to prevent the burnt bread and corning from mixing with it. Then some sirrup is put into the wort to make it more palatable, and to take away the taste, which the gum of the tree might leave behind. The wort is then left to cool after some yeast has been put into it, and nothing remains to be done until it is tunned up, but skimming of what, during fermentation, has risen up upon the surface; and in four and twenty hours it is fit to drink.”
In 1757 John Knox noted that New England troops when they captured Louisbourg (Cape Breton) in 1745 were supplied with spruce beer. “This liquor being thought necessary for the preservation of the healths of our men, as they were confined to salt provisions, and it is an excellent antiscorbutic: it is made from the tops and branches of the Spruce-tree, boiled for three hours, then strained into casks, with a certain quantity of molasses, and, as soon as cold, it is fit for use.”
Though it’s hard to say whether the New England troops were simply consuming spruce beer found at Louisbourg or whether they had made it themselves, it is clear that the British the consumption of spruce beer took off during the Seven Years War also known as the French and Indian War to Americans. In 1759, General Amherst recorded his own recipe for spruce beer.
“Take 7 pounds of good spruce & boil it well till the bark peels off, then take the spruce out & put three gallons of molasses to the Liquor & and boil it again, scum it well as it boils, then take it out the kettle & put it into a cooler, boil the remained of the water sufficient for a barrel of thirty gallons, if the kettle is not large enough to boil it together, when milk-warm in the cooler put a pint of yeast into it and mix well. Then put it into a Barrel and let it work for two or three days, keep filling it up as it works out. When done working, bung it up with a Tent Peg in the barrel to give it vent every now and then. It may be used in up to two or three days after. If wanted to be bottled it should stand a fortnight in the cask. It will keep a great while.”
Spruce beer would enjoy over a century of popularity, not just in North America but also in Europe. In 1769 a book, The London Practice of Physic, listed spruce beer as a treatment for scurvy giving the following recipe.
“Take twelve gallons of water and put therein three pounds and a half of black spruce, and boil it for three hours; then put to the liquor seven pounds of molasses just boil it up, strain it through a sieve when milk-warm, put to it about four spoonfulls of yeast to work it; it soon becomes fit for bottling, perhaps in five or six days.”
Even the American founding fathers became interested in spruce beer. Benjamin Franklin first came across spruce beer while in France during the American War for Independence. He began experimenting with it on his return at the end of the war and his recipe for spruce beer survived.
“For a Cask containing 80 bottles, take one pot of Essence [of spruce] and 13 Pounds of Molasses. – or the same amount of unrefined Loaf Sugar; mix them well together in 20 pints of hot Water: Stir together until they make a Foam, then pour it into the Cask you will then fill with Water: add a Pint of good Yeast, stir it well together and let it stand 2 or 3 Days to ferment, after which close the Cask, and after a few days it will be ready to be put into Bottles, that must be tightly corked. Leave them 10 or 12 Days in a cool Cellar, after which the Beer will be good to drink.”
Another American recipe comes to us from Amelia Simmons, American Cookery, published in 1796.
“For brewing Spruce Beer. Take four ounces of hops, let them boil half an hour, in one gallon of water, strain the hop water, then add 16 gallons of warm water, two gallons of molasses, eight ounces of essence of spruce, dissolved in one quart of water, put it in a clean cask, then shake it well together, add half a pint of emptins [baker’s yeast], then let it stand and work one week, if very warm weather less time will do, when it is drawn off to bottle, add one spoonful of molasses to every bottle.”
Around the same time spruce beer was becoming ubiquitous with the British Navy. Scurvy was a common issue for sailors on long sea voyages. Records from Captain Cook’s voyages showed that he made spruce beer on both his second voyage to New Zealand and on his third to Alaska using local varieties of coniferous trees. His recipe survives and is still being made by Wingram Brewing Company in New Zealand.
“We at first made our beer of a decoction of the spruce leaves; but, finding that this alone made it too astringent, we afterwards mixed with it an equal quantity of the tea plant (a name it obtained in my former voyage, from our using it as a tea then, as we also did now), which partly destroyed the astringency of the other, and made the beer exceedingly palatable, and esteemed by everyone on board. We brewed it in the same manner as spruce beer, and the process is as follows. First make a strong decoction of the small branches of the spruce and tea-plants, by boiling them three or four hours, or until the bark will strip with ease from the branches; then take them out of the copper, and put in the proper quantity of molasses, ten gallons of which is sufficient to make a ton, or two hundred and forty gallons of beer. Let this mixture just boil; then put it into casks, and to it add an equal quantity of cold water, more or less according to the strength of the decoction, or your taste. When the whole is milk-warm, put in a little grounds of beer, or yeast if you have it, or anything else that will cause fermentation, and in a few days the beer will be fit to drink.”
From Then Until Now
The manufacturing of spruce beer was particularly prevalent in Nova Scotia. Due to its poor climate for growing the traditional ingredients of beer; barley and hops – a substitute was needed. Spruce trees were highly prevalent and molasses from Britain’s colonies in the Caribbean was both readily available, cheap, and gave the spruce beer a colour and taste comparable to traditional malted beers.
Spruce beer remained popular for over one hundred years until the middle of the nineteenth century. A large contributing factor was the British Navy’s shift away from spruce beer to using citrus, primarily lemon and lime, for the prevention of scurvy. The price of grain which had been historically more expensive also began to decline making traditional beer making less costly.
Though the tradition of making spruce beer in Nova Scotia was never fully lost it did drastically decline. Most breweries stopped producing it. Only homebrewers kept the tradition alive. That was until the last couple of years.
Garrison Brewery’s master brewer Daniel Girard wanted to give making spruce beer a try. He’d heard about spruce beer from his grandfather. When he approached Brian Titus the owner of Garrison he was initially turned down. “Not gonna to do it. No,” he said. “This is not going to be the beer that takes this brewery down.”
He eventually gave in and they’ve been producing it as a seasonal addition ever since. On the Garrison website they describe the beer as “North America’s oldest beer style brewed with local Spruce and fir tips, blackstrap molasses and dates. Dark amber and brown colouring. Aroma is a comforting mix of spruce boughs, caramel malts, molasses and dates.”
It’s a strong beer at 7.5% alcohol. It’s heavy and the taste of the molasses and dates are definitely the strongest flavour notes. Though, it does have a nice piney or citrusy hint that isn’t overpowering and balances well.
Garrison also ages their spruce beer in rum barrels. This version of the beer has an alcohol percentage of 11%. It has a similar flavour profile as their regular spruce beer but with some spicer notes caused by the rum.
Both are worth trying.
- Don J Durzan. Arginine, Scurvy and Cartier’s “Tree of Life”. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 2009.
- Hodges RE. What’s New About Scurvy? American Journal Clinical Nutrition. 1971;24:383–384.
- The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. Oxford University Press, November 2012.
- Russell M. Magnaghi. Upper Peninsula Beer: A History of Brewing Above the Bridge. Arcadia Publishing, Apr 27, 2015.
- John Knox. Historical Journal of the Campaigns in North America for the Years 1757, 1758, 1759, and 1760 (volume I).
- Geoffrey L. Hudson. British Military and Naval Medicine, 1600-1830. Rodopi, 2007.
- Jeffrey Amherst. Journal of General Jeffrey Amherst, Governor-General of British North America.
- The London Practice of Physic.Printed for W. Johnston, London, 1773.
- Russell M. Magnaghi. Upper Peninsula Beer: A History of Brewing Above the Bridge. Arcadia Publishing, Apr 27, 2015.
- Ed Beaglehole. The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery II The Voyage of the Resolution and Adventure 1772–1775. Cambridge University Press, 1961.
- Ed Beaglehole. The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery III The Voyage of the Resolution and Adventure 1776–1780. Cambridge University Press; 1967.
- Garrison Spruce Beer Is a Relic From Nova Scotia Pioneers. TheStar.com, February 7, 2012. https://www.thestar.com/life/food_wine/2012/02/07/garrison_spruce_beer_is_a_relic_from_nova_scotia_pioneers.html
- Garrison Brewery. http://www.garrisonbrewing.com/show/the-beer/2.