Spruce Beer, or, A Beer to Ward Off Scurvy

Mon 14 Sep 2009 - Filed under: Not a Journal., | 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.