18th Century Spruce Beer
Last updated: Nov 27, 2021
Recipes for, and references to, spruce beer in 18th century (and some early 19th century) writings. (A linkspage on 18th century beer and beer-brewing can be found elsewhere on this site.)
Spruce beer was sometimes used as an antiscorbutic – for the prevention of scurvy – especially among sailors. During Cook’s Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, near the coast of New Zealand,
Two of our men were employed in brewing spruce beer; while others filled the water-casks, collected grass for the cattle, and cut wood … Besides fish, we had other refreshments in abundance. Scurvy-grass, celery, and portable soup, were boiled every day with the wheat and pease; and we had spruce beer for our drink. Such a regimen soon removed all seeds of the scurvy from our people, if any of them had contracted it. But indeed, on our arrival here, we only had two invalids in both ships.
From a writer in The London Magazine (1764):
I think it the wholesomest drink that is made; I am seldom without it when I can get spruce. When I lived in New England, I had a vessel that went from thence to the West-Indies, and the bay of Honduras, for logwood: I always charged the master of her to take black spruce with him, and give his men beer all the voyage, which he did, and his men were healthy and well in the West-Indies and in the Bay, when others, at the same time and places, that drank water, were very sickly. I have so great an opinion of the beer, that I wish it was used in all our ships on the coast of Guinea, and in the West-Indies; and where at many places the water is very bad, which if brewed into this beer, by the fermentation would likely make it good drink, and with the help of the spruce nothing so easy to make.
The vitamin C content in the spruce is responsible for spruce beer’s curative properties. For more modern scientific analysis of the antiscorbutic properties of spruce beer, see Captain Cook’s beer: the antiscorbutic use of malt and beer in late 18th century sea voyages and James Lind and the cure of scurvy: an experimental approach.
- Of rare and useful Plants, found growing in this County, The Antient and Present State of the County and City of Cork (1750)
- The Method of making Spruce Beer practiced in the North of America, from the Letters of P. Kalm sent to the Swedish Academy, Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle (1752)
- Of the Cultivation of Exotics, particularly of the American Firr-tree, The Gentleman’s Magazine (1756)
- Of the prevention of the Scurvy, A Treatise on the Scurvy (1757)
- Method of preparing Chowder-Beer, The London Magazine (1764); this is referenced in an appendix (A Proposal for Preventing the Scurvy in the British Navy) in Libellus de natura, causa, curationedque scorbuti (1768)
- Of the Scurvy, The General Practice of Physic (1765)
- “Some directions for making a kind of small beer; which, from cheapness, agreeableness, and perhaps wholesomeness, is greatly preferable, to that which is made by brewing malt: and which has this further advantage, that it may be made ready for drinking in three or four days time,” Museum Rusticum et Commerciale (1766)
- “A decoction of the spruce leaves … in the same manner as spruce beer, and the process is as follows,” from The voyages of Captain James Cook round the world (originally published in 1777, though this is from the 1813 edition)
- For brewing Spruce Beer, American Cookery (1796)
- Diseases of St. Domingo: Popular Remedies, An Enquiry into the Nature, and Causes of the Great Mortality Among the Troops at St. Domingo (1797)
- To make good spruce beer, The Vintner’s Guide (1825)
- Recipes for brown spruce beer and white spruce beer, Five Thousand Receipts in All the Useful and Domestic Arts (1825)
- White Spruce Beer and Brown Spruce Beer, The American Dispensatory (1825)
- “Outre les bières connues, que nous avions, ils en préparant encore une, dans les climats chauds, dont je n’avais pas entendu parler, et qu’ils nomment spruce-beer, bière à sapin,” Voyage a l’Ile de France, dans l’Inde et en Angleterre (1825)
- Spruce Beer, The Virginia Housewife (1831)