18th Century Spruce Beer

Last updated: Jan 7, 2024

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.