Captain Cook encouraged the making of spruce beer on his long sea-voyages because he knew it helped prevent scurvy. Nowadays we know that the tips of the spruce trees are a rich source of vitamin C. In many pioneer communities there was a tradition of home-brewing and there are many examples of this sort of beer being made, both alcoholic and as a soft drink. In Quebec and in Newfoundland it is known as bière d’épinette and again, is available as a genuine beer or as a non-alcoholic beverage.
A Newfoundland recipe from 1776 states: Spruce Beer [is] the Common Liquor of the Country. The receipt for making it take as follows; Take a copper that Contains 12 Gallons, fill it as full of the Boughs of Black spruce as it will hold; Pressing them down pretty tight; Fill it up with water Boil it till the Rind will strip off the Spruce Boughs which will waste it about one third, take them out & add to the water one Gallon of Melasses; Let the whole Boil till the Melasses are disolv’d; take a half hogshead & Put in nineteen Gallons of water & fill it up with the Essence. Work it with Barm & Beergrounds & in Less than a week it is fit to Drink.
Nowadays the term spruce beer is used by the Wigram Brewing Company and is based on Captain Cook’s first beer brewed in New Zealand in 1773. The flavour was originally obtained from the green shoots collected in the Spring, and in addition the sap would be boiled up with the molasses to give a distinctive flavour.
In Scandinavian countries a Norway Spruce is used in place of hops, whereas Colonial America made theirs from red or black spruce or even Sitka Spruce. Garrisons Spruce Beer describes itself as “North America’s oldest beer style brewed with local Spruce & Fir tips, blackstrap molasses and dates. Dark amber and brown colouring. Aroma is a comforting mix of spruce boughs, caramel malts, molasses and dates. Complex and full-bodied, it balances the crisp bitterness of spruce and fir gum with the warming flavours of molasses and bittersweet chocolate”.
Mmmm, sounds delicious!
And a more modern and accessible recipe? I am indebted to Pioneer Thinking for this, from their website here
5 gallons of water
1/8 pound of hops
1/2 cup of dried, bruised ginger root
1 pound of the outer twigs of spruce fir
3 quarts of molasses
1/2 yeast cake dissolved in 1/2 cup of warm water or 1/2 cup of liquid homemade yeast
In a large kettle combine the water, hops, ginger root and spruce fir twigs. Boil together until all the hops sink to the bottom of the kettle. Strain into a large crock and stir in the molasses. After this has cooled add the yeast. Cover and leave to set for 48 hours. Then bottle, cap and leave in a warm place (70-75 degrees F) for 5 days. It will now be ready to drink. Store upright in a cool place.
So, there you have the genuine taste of Eighteenth Century ale – now go pick some spruce shoots and you will be toasting Captain Cook in barely a week!