Jul 192012

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!

  2 Responses to “Captain James Cook: the man who championed spruce beer”


    Thanks for this post and the recipe. This sounds wonderful and I’d like to try it (but would first need to locate some good spruce trees around D.C. I’ll have to ask around).
    Yards Brewing company make a pretty great spruce beer as well, for those among us who are too impatient to brew their own. 😉


    My first encounter with the mention of “spruce beer” came from a book about Cook’s voyages, published about twenty years ago. I’ve since lost contact with the book. The comment below I made on a liquor forum of all places, and have retrieved, but the information was gleaned from Internet sources.

    “On his last voyage Captain James Cook sailed right past the Strait of Juan de Fuca without noticing it, entered Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island and spent the month of April 1778 anchored there. He and his crew then went through the Bearing Straights and into the Arctic Ocean. They spent about 3 months above the Arctic Circle (about 66 degrees/33’N) looking for a “Northwest passage” around the world. Reaching a maximum 70 deg, 44′ N latitude, he and his crew were blocked by ice at every turn. Cold, miserable and crew near mutiny, Cook then turned back south but not before mapping both the Alaskan and Siberian coastlines.

    I can’t get the exact location without searching harder but: before his ill fated return to Hawaii, Cook landed somewhere along the coastline of what has become Washington state, and made a “small beer” to content his crew. It was brewed with the help of sugar and the buds of young spruce tree saplings (which were high in vitamin C and discouraged scurvy)”.

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