Over the years I have had the pleasure of talking with many seniors about changing attitudes to alcohol and the stigmas of problem drinking during their generation. This has led to many interesting conversations, teaching me many things I did not know. They talked about the culture of drinking, and some spoke about home brews on farms- people bringing home made wine and other beverages to farm dances. Men drank on these occasions, women usually didn't.
The topic of local people making spruce beer has come up on a few occasions. For example, a senior raised in Montreal in the 1930s and 1940s remembers her family making it. Some seniors who came from rural communities recalled other types of home brews that friends or neighbours had.
Spruce beer has quite a long and (ig)noble history in Canada and the United States from way back to the 1700s. Spruce Beer gets it name from the spruce tips or the spruce shoots used to produce it. These are mixed with hops, yeast, water, molasses in most recipes. There is both an alcoholic and a non alcoholic version (like a root beer or a ginger beer). The recipe for the two seems pretty much the same. Apparently, the difference between the alcoholic and non-alcoholic version is amount of molasses.
Both Canadians and Americans were brewing spruce beer for a long time. Internet historians such as naval museums and the Fortress of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia give accounts of its use and recipes for it. See below:
The Daily Order for the Highland Regiment in North America stipulated that: "Spruce beer is to be brewed for the health and conveniency [sic] of the troops which will be served at prime cost. Five quarts of molasses will be put into every barrel of Spruce Beer. Each gallon will cost nearly three coppers."
From 1778: The log of the "Discovery" reveals that captain Cook and his crew brewed spruce beer while exploring Nootka Sound, B.C. [Sleeman Brewery}
Apparently in 1775, letters from Vice Admiral Samuel Graves to Philip Stephens writing from Boston, spruce beer was viewed as a better alternative to rum ( I guess it might be an early example of a harm reduction approach). Here is a short passage:
"I inclose also an account of Provisions belonging to the Contractor in Store at Boston for the use of the Fleet. But it must be remembered that we have no reliance on that Scheme of baking Bread this Winter at Boston. Wood is and will be too scarce and dear, it is now from six to eight Dollars a Cord; and I really do not believe it will possible for the Agent to bake either Loaves or Biscuit, whatever he may think. It will be difficult to provide Fuel to brew Spruce Beer for the Squadry may depend upon having both here and in Halifax.
Being on the Subject of provisions it is indispensably become my Duty to represent to their Lordships that the custom of supplying New England Rum to his Majesty's Ships is in my humble opinion highly prejudicial to the State. The use of it destroys the Health and Faculties of the People and debilitates them surprizinzly [sic]. The Seamen always continue healthy and active when drinking spruce Beer; but in a few days after New England Rum is served, although mixed with four or five Waters, the Hospital is crouded [sic] with sick, and those on board are pallid, weak, and incapable of doing half their Duty. I appeal to the Captains of the Squadron that this is always the Consequence of their Crews having New England Rum. It is indeed . "
Lara Maynard of Torbay NF offers a description given by Patrick Devine, which dates probably from the very 1900s in Newfoundland:
...In summer time when the men and women cam to town from Torbay, Pouch Cove, Outer Cove etc, with loads of dried codfish on carts or steamers as they were called, Scanlan's lane became their favourite resort resort at dinner hour. They would buy their lunch, spruce beer, cheese and penny buns at Scanlan's Lane after having discharged their fish at O'Brien's, Job's, Thomas's and Walter Grieve's, etc. Not to say gallons, but barrels and barrels of spruce beer would be sold out in a day. Men, women, boys and girls would sit on the ground on both sides of the lane, eating their lunch and drinking "the cup that cheers but not inebriates."
Modern biologists have found that the spruces ( conifers in general) have an abundance of flavonoids [See, Duncan]
So what did Spruce Beer taste like: Well that's the interesting part. Modern day home brewers offer these descriptions:
"I've tried it once before. It is taking super-human will and much prayer to even get my nose near this stuff. We all agree - it smells just like Vick's Vaporub.."
Another brave soul (#2) describes it:
"It taste a combination of mint julep ... and Listerine."
The non alcoholic version doesn't get a better description:
"This is the worst. It's overwhelmingly tree sap - and not the nice bits of trees (like birch beer, root beer, sarsaparilla...). You know how they make hot dogs out of all the parts you can't use anywhere else. This must be soda's equivalent to a hot dog. If ever offered a bottle, save yourself the trouble and drink some paint thinner. It will taste the same, but you can wash your brushes with the remaining thinner you don't drink. Spruce Beer would probably melt the bristles off. This "soda" is also disturbingly thick - it coats your tongue white and the nauseating flavor lingers on and on and on. This is soft-drink purgatory."
"The flavor (if that is the right word for self-inflicted torture of this depth) is pine and menthol.. If you ever wanted to lick a pine tree, here is your chance. It is pine, spruce and menthol. Why anyone ever wanted to make a soda that tastes like this will be one of those mysteries that will haunt me for years."
To be fair, writer #2 goes on :
"After two years of aging in the refrigerator, it is now one of the most refreshing, light summer beers I've ever tasted. So don't give up on th spruce beers. They take a long time to mellow, but it's worth the wait. own version of a spruce is coming up on 1 year old this month and is jus starting to taste like something resembling beer. Actually quite good."
So, if you have a quiet day, and you want to start an interesting conversation among a group of older adults (preferably in people their seventies or eighties), you might want to consider asking them if they recall people making home brews, including spruce beer or other beverages.
Some seniors also have some intersting insights into the development of modern home brews for wine and beer (very popular in some parts of the country among middle aged and older adults)- and that's another story.
If I understand correctly, Fanta (Canada) makes the non alcoholic version of the spruce beer, and an American Alaskan brewery that makes an alcoholic version.
References and Resources
Duncan, K. Fighting Free Radicals: The Role of Bark Extractives http://www.positivehealth.com/permit/Articles/Antioxidant/duncn44.htm
Sleeman Brewery. www.sleeman.com/en/heritage/crafthistory-1700-1799.html
Graves's Conduct, Vol. I, pp 130-132 [BM]. http://hbd.org/brewery/cm3/recs/07_39.html
Maynard, L. The National Temperance Drink of Newfoundland In Attics and Archives, Vol, 4, Issue 5, page .3. Online at : http:/torbay.museum.tripod.com/ocean7.htm