The online magazine
dedicated to the
discussion & revival
of British foodways.

NO.55
WINTER2017

A note on spruce beer.

1. Evergreen in Philadelphia

Yards, the adept Philadelphia brewer of robust British style ales, includes an oddity among its offerings, “Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce.” Unlike so many attempts to trade on Franklin’s ‘name,’ this one is justified. Franklin did draft a recipe for spruce beer, and liked it enough to translate it into French from the English original for the use of his cook during the time he spent in Paris.

Strange stuff, spruce beer; at least at first glance an acquired taste. And yet it has an honorable heritage in North America and did, for a time, prove popular in Britain. Not many cultures now, only Greece with its retsina comes to mind, relish the turpentine tinted taste of evergreen in their drinks.

 

Yards_Tavern_Spruce_Poured.jpg 

2. The kitchen sink.

Then again for eons people have attempted to ferment anything they could find, and they

have found any number of oddities. “The ancients,” according to Abigail Tucker, “were liable to spike their drinks with all sorts of unpredictable stuff--olive oil, bog myrtle, cheese, meadowsweet, mugwort, carrot, not to mention hallucinogens like hemp and poppy.” (Tucker)

Devon white ale is made, predictably enough, with wheat flour, but also counterintuitively with eggs, and Earth Eagle in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, has made a good sort of stout by throwing a dozen fruitcakes into each batch.

Stouts and porters made with oysters or their shells share a venerable history in Britain, and craft brewers in the United States have revived the style. A Denver enterprise, Wynkoop Brewing, uses prairie oysters, three balls per barrel, in a dissimilar stout, while a German brewer concocts “Cannabia” from hemp. (Young) Italian craft brewers make beers with the indigenous chestnuts that give prosciutto its characteristic flavor. (Oliver 337).

Mbege, the indigenous beer of Tanzania, requires banana and millet for malt, quinine for its

analog to hops. (Kubo & Kilasara) “By any name,” however, “sorghum beer is the traditional beer of Africa” and has been brewed since prehistoric times. Adjuncts to the sorghum have included cassava, corn and millet alone or in combination. (beerandbrewing)

 

3. Resourceful brewers in the wilderness.

In colonial North America, Malt supplies were variable and its quality unreliable, so commercial as well as domestic brewers exhibited a lot of imagination by resorting to adjuncts ranging from corn and cornstalks to Jerusalem artichokes, peas, peaches, persimmons, potatoes, pumpkins and maple sap while herbs and spicing other than hops persisted into the nineteenth century. (Simmons; Oliver 164-65, 337)

Anything to hand for fermentation, flavor or preservation has become a component of beer, and for the people of frigid climes evergreen needles are quite literally thick on the bough or ground.

North American spruce beer represents in one way a special case. Beer itself used to replace polluted water as the staple hydrator of need in urban centers, at least in the west, since before the medieval period. Spruce beer, however, has a different medicinal lineage on the frontiers of empire in the northern new world.

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4. O Canada….

Spruce beer became ubiquitous throughout the icy reaches of winter Canada, where voyageurs and the earliest settlers deprived of fresh food hoped and thought it might forestall scurvy. By the middle of the eighteenth century the British armies in North America considered spruce beer indispensable. It was, according to Erica Charters, the “most common, and most popular, preventative and cure for scurvy” used by British forces during the Seven Years’ War. (Charters 26)

They brewed it in great quantity. In 1757, a British captain recorded that the ration of spruce beer at Halifax was “two quarts per day to each man,” and noted that elsewhere “the soldiers are obliged to draw five pints per day.” ( quoted at Charters 27; emphasis in original) During 1760 a Massachusetts formation sent five hundred troops in search of spruce, and throughout the war officers requested large supplies of molasses to brew the beer. (Charters 26)

French Canadians also produced spruce beer in large quantity. According to Peter Kalm, a Scandinavian botanist who traveled through North America from 1748 to 1751, believed they drank nearly nothing else. He considered spruce beer a regional curiosity limited to the northerly settlements and

“chiefly used by the French in Canada: a considerable quantity is indeed made by the Dutch who live round Hudson’s river, in the most northern parts, but the English seldom have it except in New England and New Scotland; because in Canada the tree is very common, but at Albany it is so scarce that the people are obliged to go some miles for it; and in the other English plantations it is hardly to be met with.” (Cornell 2)

Whether or not Kalm and the consumers he chronicled considered spruce beer a prophylactic is unclear, but during 1752 the secretary to the French governor of Cape Breton Island described it as “an excellent sort of antiscorbutic.” (Cornell 1)

In maritime Canada people also drank it because they liked it. In September 1766, a season when fresh produce rich in Vitamin C abounded, Joseph Banks, an accomplished English botanist visiting Labrador and Newfoundland, called “Spruce Beer the Common Liquor of the Country.” (Perkins 49; quoted at Perkins 50) So, apparently, did the British troops who drank so much spruce beer. One officer on campaign in North America during the Seven Years’ War noted that “the Soldiers are all fond of it.” ( quoted at Charters 26)

 

5. Across the wide Atlantic.

Spruce beer shares an alternative lineage with the Norse, Danzig and wider Balts. The north European angle does not exert much influence on New World foodways because despite their pre-Columbian settlements the Vikings left scant trace of their culinary culture in Scandinavia, let alone North America, where nobody needed to import spruce from the eastern hemisphere. (Oliver 163; hurstwic)

Among others, Martyn Cornell, who has written extensively about the history of beer, traces the two lineages to a broad but brief vogue in England. In 1771, a Quebec native obtained a British patent for his “method of producing an essence or extract of spruce” to brew spruce beer and by 1774 had licensed a producer in London. By 1784 they also were brewing “the best double American spruce beer” themselves. They had a number of competitors for both essence and beer; during 1790 the Hampshire Chronicle provided its readers with a list of over twenty retail sources for “essence of Canadian spruce.” (Cornell 8, 9, 10)

A number of recipes for brewing spruce beer appeared in British as well as American periodicals and books during the second half of the eighteenth century and at least as late as 1831. (18th Century Notebook) The vogue for spruce beer in Britain, however, would not survive the middle of the nineteenth century. Imported essence of spruce, the only source for the product, generated but a pound sterling in tax revenue to the crown in 1856, and by 1866 “not one drop had been imported.” (Cornell 13)

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6. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a good palate, must be in want of a spruce beer.

The most celebrated adherent of spruce beer may be Jane Austen, who brewed it at home. “The salubrity of spruce beer,” she wrote during 1808 in an echo of the famous opening line from Pride and Prejudice , “is universally acknowledged.” Austen also notes in the same year that “we are brewing spruce beer again… in consequence” of a visit from her friend Martha Lloyd, who particularly liked it.

Spruce beer also appears in Emma , where the title character and her friend George Knightley, who serves it at a strawberry party, both like spruce beer. He serves a glass to the local vicar who says he is “resolved to like it too” in an effort to earn her favor. (Cornell 9; Vogler 145) That, perhaps, represents an inference that spruce beer was, for the Austen circle, an acquired taste too. Not too many people acquire the taste anymore.

 

7. Evergreen in Philadelphia.

It is unclear from the product information published by Yards how close the tavern spruce beer hews to its eighteenth century template. The labels on the bottle say both that the ale is “[c]rafted following Ben Franklin’s original recipe” and that it is “based on Franklin’s original recipe,” a considerably less robust claim of authenticity, and the diluted description is probably more accurate.

In common with Franklin’s, the Yards version contains spruce and molasses, but Yards adds malt to cut the intense spice tones of the molasses for eviscerated twenty-first century tastes. Malt is absent from either version of the Franklin recipe, and he also used a spruce extract instead of the fresh tips and sprigs because they were unavailable to him in either Britain or France. (Chinard 56, 57)

What does spruce beer taste like? The Yards version tastes good. Our panel of affable beerdrinkers reacted to the flavor with a range of comments, all positive:

“I like it. Surprised, but I like it.”

“Serve it ice cold --as an aperitif with salty snacks.”

“More gingery than pine.”

That, as noted, from the molasses rather than any dose of spice.

“It’s really good: Ten out of ten, I’d drink it again.”

“It tastes like nature.”

Our own Stephanie Dearmont provided an appraisal that encapsulates the history of spruce beer writ large. I like it, she pondered, but “it’s not a quaffing beer. You want it, then you don’t. It’s interesting but it palls.”

Worth a try though, especially during the winter holidays, when anything evergreen, whether in terms of metaphor or horticulture, packs a particular appeal.

Notes:

-Erica Charters, among other scholars, does not believe spruce beer offered any prophylactic against scurvy. The antiscorbutic advantage of the spruce would, she reasons, have leached away in the process of boiling the wort during the brewing cycle. Others hold out historical hope that spruce beer helped those frostbitten voyageurs, trappers, habitants and troops. (Charters 28; see , e.g. , Cornell 5, 6-7)

-Our thanks to Bianca Baldelli, Gustav Blom, Matthew Buckholz, Andrew Greisman, David Peck, Madeleine Perkins and Effy Wang for sampling spruce beer.

Sources:

Anon., “18th Century Spruce Beer,” 18th Century Notebook www.larsdatter.com/18c/spruce-beer.html (n.d.; accessed 25 October 2017)

Anon., “Food, Diet and Nutrition in the Viking Age,”  www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/daily_living/text/food_and_diet.htm (n.d.; accessed 16 November 2017)

Erica Charters, Disease, War, and the Imperial State: The Welfare of the British Forces During the Seven Years’ War (Chicago 2014)

Gilbert Chinard, Benjamin Franklin on the Art of Eating (Princeton 1958)

Martyn Cornell, “A Short History of Spruce Beer Part Two: The North American Connection,” Zythophile http://zythophile.co.uk/2016/04/20/a-short-history-of-spruce-beer-part-two-the-north-american-connection/ (20 April 2016; accessed 25 October 2017)

Ryosuke Kubo & Method Kilasara, “Brewing Technique of Mbege , a Banana Beer Produced in Northeastern Tanzania,” Beverages 2(3) 21,  www.mdpl.com/2306-5710/2/3/21 (2016; accessed 12 November 2017)

Garrett Oliver et al., The Oxford Companion to Beer (New York 2011)

Africa, traditional brewing in,”  https://beerandbrewing.com/dictionary/izd8yFIQEc/africa-traditional-brewing-in/ (n.d.; accessed 12 November 2017)

Blake Perkins, “An Enquiry into the Derivation of Chowder,” Petite Propos Culinaires 109 (September 2017) 32-67

Tony Simmons, “Poor Richard’s Ale,” Essays, Articles & Miscellany www.benfranklin300.org/etc_article_ale.htm (n.d.; accessed 1 November 2017)

Abigail Tucker, “The Beer Archaeologist,”  www.smithsonian mag.com/history/the-beer-archaeologist-17016372/ (August 2011; accessed 12 November 2017)

Pen Vogler, Dinner with Mr. Darcy: Recipes inspired by the novels and letters of Jane Austen (London 2013)

Andy Young, “Top 10 weirdest Beer ingredients,”  www.thedrinksbusiness.com (22 February 2013; accessed 15 November 2017)