Spruce Beer, or, A Beer to Ward Off Scurvy

Mon 14 Sep 2009 - Filed under: Not a Journal., | 15 Comments | Posted by: Michael

Further exploits in my quest to brew surprising, delicious, unhopped beer like it was 1799. Or 999. See more about my anti-hop crusade at The Beer of Alchemists and Witches.

The idea for this beer came from Benjamin Franklin. More directly, it came from Yards Brewing Company’s Poor Richard’s Ale, itself an attempt at a modern recreation of a recipe Franklin penned in French while stationed overseas, which, translated, reads as follows.

“Way of Making Beer with Essence of Spruce:

For a Cask containing 80 bottles, take one pot of Essence and 13 Pounds of Molases. – 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.”

Spruce contains Vitamin C (as do hemlock, pine, juniper, and lots of other evergreens). Spruce beer was introduced to America by the colonial military, as a practical and economic means to keep soldiers happy and scurvy-free. Since spruce grows on trees, a fresh supply was available most everywhere, whereas hops needed to be cultivated in a particular climate and didn’t travel all that well. Likewise, molasses was a relatively cheap and abundant byproduct of cane sugar processing, which conveniently resembled barley malts in that it contained a lot of fermentable sugar, some unfermentable, and a lot of burned-sugar flavor. The supply of grain in the colonies wasn’t what it could be. And molasses had the added benefit of coming in a concentrated liquid form that didn’t need to be heated to activate the sugars. Note that Franklin’s recipe makes no mention of a boil.

I can’t figure out whether the idea for spruce beer was Franklin’s originally, just as it remains unclear whether he really coined that high adage of the evangelizing drinker:

“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

If he got the idea in France, maybe it was because he met some Scandanavian drinkers in his social circles. Some craft breweries in Norway still brew with spruce today.

Or maybe he adopted the idea from native Americans, who drank pine needle tea in the winter to ward of colds when fresh produce wasn’t available.

Either way, spruce beer’s popularity expanded from the military to the general populous and actually held on for quite a long time. If you’re lucky, you might find an old New England grandma who remembers homebrewing with spruce for her family. If not, you can substitute a dip into the Project Gutenberg 1832 edition of the absolutely wonderful The American Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy, in which the intrepid Mrs. Lydia M. Child discusses all kinds of ingenious and delicious-sounding ways to brew beer at home in purse-friendly fashion. Some of which I am totally going to steal.

In the modern context, the economics of spruce beer have changed a bit, but not as much as you’d think. Molasses doesn’t see much use anymore in the American kitchen; a falling-off in demand has resulted in a price hike. Grain, by comparison, is fairly inexpensive. On the other hand, hops are more expensive than ever and have to be shipped here from the Willamette Valley or Kent or Hallertau, while spruce is still free and growing in my backyard.

Because I’m as much interested in adhering to the spirit of the historical spruce beer as in learning about its context, for my recipe I went with a modern interpretation: strong and malty, with a bit of molasses for authenticity and a whole lot of fresh spruce.

Spruce Beer

  • 2 gallons water
  • 6 oz molasses
  • 6.5 oz 90L crystal malt
  • 6.25 oz munich malt
  • 6.5 oz amber caramel pilsner malt
  • 25 oz light dry malt extract
  • 8 oz fresh norway spruce tips and boughs
  • dry ale yeast

I added the spruce exactly as I would an equivalent amount of hops: 4 oz for bittering at the start of the boil, 2 oz after 30 minutes, and another 2 oz after 50 minutes for aroma.

Original gravity was 1.061, final gravity was 1.015.

I brewed this in late spring, when the new, bright-green shoots at the ends of the boughs were starting to firm up and darken to the color of the rest of the tree. Fully mature evergreen needles, as I understand it, have a higher proportion of tree resins and volatile oils, which can interfere with flavor extraction and add a weird mouth-feel–though I doubt the brewers of the colonial military cared about that particularly. And I chose Norway spruce, which is a cultivated import, mostly because it was in growing in my back yard, whereas the native red and black spruce are found at higher altitude and I would have had to go hunting for them. Blue spruce grows everywhere, but it has a higher resin content and was contraindicated by several of my research sources, including Mike at the homebrew store.

In a not-so scientific but more adventurous and joyful vein, I spent a large part of the spring wandering around in the woods tasting evergreens. The knobby shoots of Eastern White Pine were my favorite–they’re slightly sweet, soft and easy to chew–but they mature quickly and would require a fair volume of trees to get enough. Eastern Hemlock is harder to chew and kind of bitter. Red Juniper aka Eastern Redcedar is scaly and tough, but the berries have a surprisingly high sugar content (40% I hear). I definitely want to try brewing with them at some point–but they mature in the fall, not the spring, and I was impatient. So spruce was the winner.

This beer came out a near-opaque reddish-brown with a caramel-colored, aromatic but quickly dissipating head, sweet in a noticeably burned-molassesy way, with a strong but not overpowering spruce character–fruity, piney, minty, with enough bitterness to balance the malts. I do not miss the hops at all. Reactions from unbiased tasters at our 4th of July cookout were at first skeptical, then positive–though I did get one or two who said it tasted like Pine Sol. Others were kinder and said it tasted of Christmas tree. Which, I have to admit, is kind of what I was going for. I want to drink it with holiday dinners, and am gleefully aging some for that purpose even as we speak.


If the recipes and ruminations above look like gibberish to you, please refer to a good homebrew how-to book such as The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, or have a look into the Literary Beer back catalog. There’s a much more in-depth step-by-step brewing process in the Honey Porter entry (as well as some more fun colonial beer history), and more about bottling at Bottling Your Homebrew. Good luck.

Comments

15 Responses to “Spruce Beer, or, A Beer to Ward Off Scurvy”

  1. To Eat and Drink of Trees | The Mossy Skull on September 15th, 2009 7:19 pm

    [...] The newest entry in my occasional blog series on homebrewing is live on the Small Beer Press site. [...]

  2. Brian R on September 20th, 2009 5:15 pm
  3. mjd on September 20th, 2009 6:31 pm

    Awesome! I am a fan of that brewery – I have one of their magnets on my fridge – but didn’t know about this winter ale. It’s hard to get their stuff out here. But I’ll be looking for it when next I travel west!

  4. Kouros on July 25th, 2010 9:34 am

    I only learned about spruce beer earlier today, and stumbled across this site whilst trying to learn more about it. I fully intend to give this a go – would there be any noticeable problem harvesting new shoots now, rather than in spring?

  5. Michael on July 25th, 2010 10:11 am

    Kouros,

    From what I understand, harvesting fully mature rather than fresh spruce means less acid content in the shoots (including ascorbic acid aka vitamin c) and more resinous oils/tannins. So that means you’ll get a more winelike mouth-feel, more piney flavor and less “fruity”. With more resins, there might also be risk of poor head retention. If you’re going with my recipe above, I’d reduce the quantity of spruce tips in the boil by half and maybe add another ounce in the secondary–that way the heat of the boil will have fewer resins to extract.

    Or alternatively you could try adding a little of some head-retaining adjunct grain like flaked barley.

    Let me know how it goes!

  6. Kouros on July 25th, 2010 10:14 am

    Will do! May even be a couple of weeks before I get an opportunity, but will feed back.

  7. Fermenting: “Marley was Dead” Barleywine « Garrick Van Buren .com « Web Application Research, Strategy, and Development on February 13th, 2011 11:17 am

    [...] & bitterness – young growth spruce was commonly used in beer. Particularly in Colonial America. For an inspiring story on using actual spruce in a barleywine – I recommend: Spruce [...]

  8. Cultures and Cures « Spruce Beer « on July 29th, 2012 6:05 pm

    [...] is based on a few recipes. One is from the book Strong Waters and the others were floating around the internet and written by settlers in the 1800′s. I think the settlers definitely liked a more powerful [...]

  9. John Reed on May 22nd, 2013 11:09 am

    I have been researching what I can do with my spruce tips: http://www.reedbrewing.com/2013/05/spruce-tips.html

    So far I put a few in a salad and they tasted great.
    thanks for the ideas and recipe

  10. Fred Harrison on March 6th, 2014 4:38 pm

    With 1 1/2 lbs. of old leftover wheat lme, 1 1/2 lbs. of crystalizing raw honey, an almost outdated packet of baker’s yeast and 2 teaspoons of spruce extract added at bottling, I made my first 2 gallons of spruce ale last fall. It was good just three weeks after capping it down, but exceptional after two months. Never could I have imagined getting such a great return on so little.

    I like Alaskan Winter Ale, but I don’t think of it as a spruce ale. This spring I’ll collect some spruce tips and try out your recipe.

    Anyone experienced with what hops work best with spruce tips and how to balance them out, I’d be glad to hear from you.

    All the best.

  11. Richard Pero on March 28th, 2014 6:08 pm

    I don’t know a thing about brewing beer but I came across what appeared to be a beer recipe. It belonged to my great great grandfather. He is a note worthy gentleman named Corporal William Glass and was the founder of the Island of Tristan da Cunha. We were donating his belongings to the British Museum when we came across the recipe in his captains sea chest. After looking at other beer cooking instructions I started to believe it wasn’t a beer recipe. Now that I have come across this page I realize that it is. It calls for a handful of hops boiled in 2 quarts of water. After it is cooled you separate the hops from the water and then you add flour and thicken it to consistency of common paste. You wait until it is perfectly sour then you add 1 tin to a barrel then add 7 quarts of molasses along with 1 wine glass of essence of spruce. You shake it together filling the barrel with cold water bunging it up immediately “24 hours after it will be fit for use”. Any thoughts on this? What it might taste like? I’m a Blue Moon guy myself….

  12. Michael on March 28th, 2014 6:31 pm

    Wow, cool, a 5th generation family recipe! Yes, that sounds like many of the beer recipes I’ve read from that era, very different from a modern homebrew recipe in that it uses what was available at the time, but probably perfectly viable natheless. The flour stands in for malted barley in the form of starch, likewise the molasses in the form of burnt sugar. Waiting until “perfectly sour” would be something akin to making a sourdough starter: giving naturally occurring airborne yeasts time to work their magic. However, only 24 hours fermentation time and no allowance for CO2 blowoff, means what you’re likely to get is an only slightly alcoholic (1 or 2% by volume maybe) hops/spruce “soda” (but what at the time would likely have been referred to as “small beer”). The CO2 builds up in the barrel to the point that the internal pressure prevents the yeast from consuming most of the sugars. What you’d get would probably be cloudy (not unlike a blue moon, but there the similarity ends), dark and sweet.

    The other worry would be translating to modern units of volume. I’m guessing your ur-grandpa would have been using UK measurements, wherein a barrel equals 36 imperial gallons. But how big is the wine glass? And what exactly is the consistency of “common paste”? There I think you’re stuck with trial and error. I’d definitely try if it were my ur-grandpa! :)

  13. Richard Pero on March 28th, 2014 8:28 pm

    Thanks for the quick response and the valuable information! All the pieces fit now…we have an ancestor page on Facebook and some of the relatives disagreed with me. They said that William Glass was a God fearing man and that there were no accounts of him or the islanders consuming alcohol on the island. One person even said that hops wouldn’t grow on the island….I told her that the recipe was in his desk with his will, the constitution of the island, permission from the church of England to form a church on the island and other very valuable papers. It was important to him!

    They were whalers and fisherman and lived on an isolated island in the south Atlantic. I believe they drank it to ward off scurvy, the fact it had a little alcohol helped to keep a little fun in their life’s.

    He was Scottish but in the British Military so yes UK measurements. Thanks for the information on the barrel. Any thoughts or guesses on the tin? Do you think that is an official UK measurement or like a tin can of some sort? I’m guessing that what they made and consumed could be improved upon. My goal is to make one batch as close to what they made and drank then try to make one that is very drinkable by todays standards. A lot of trial and error I guess. At least it’s relatively quick and easy to make. Sorry this was so long and thanks again for the information.

  14. Michael on March 29th, 2014 9:17 am

    Right, the tin! That line might mean this recipe is intended to make several barrels over time, ie you use one “tin” (maybe a coffee can?) of hopped flour paste per barrel, then when you’ve drunk up that barrel you do it again. This is not unlike keeping a sourdough starter, where you use only a piece of the starter for each loaf, then replenish the starter by feeding it with more flour and water.

    Depending on where you live now you might have trouble making that work, since naturally occurring yeasts are different everywhere. To hedge bets, you might seed your flour paste with some bread yeast.

    Good luck! I’d love to hear how it tastes if you do try it.

  15. Richard Pero on March 29th, 2014 11:57 am

    Thanks again for the information and your insights. I will keep you posted on how things progress. I’m sure as I get into it I will have some troubleshooting questions for you.

    Rich

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