Spruce beer is a beverage flavored with the buds, needles, or essence of spruce trees. Spruce beer can refer to either alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverages.
Spruce has long been used to make drinks. Needles were often left to infuse in boiling water, then taken like a tea. It’s especially rich in Vitamin C and Captain Cook used spruce tea to help his crew stave off scurvy. It can also be drank as a refreshing (if unusual), beer.
Spruce beer started to obtain real popularity from 17th century, especially amongst the Newfoundland settlers and by 1766, Joseph Banks had described it as the, “common liquor of the country”. It stayed a popular drink up to the end of the 19th Century when it fell out of favour and never really returned, except as a curiosity ale made by smaller craft breweries in the US.
While the spruce tips may have looked a little homely, they were transformed into a compelling brew. Pop open a bottle, and the aroma will send you straight back to that jam-packed lot where you picked up your Christmas tree. The powerful spruce and fir presence is also there in the flavour, along with a slightly fruity character, and some herbal notes. In addition to the spruce and fir, the brew is also made with molasses and dates, adding more complexity to the flavour. (Although in the case of the 18th century brewers, the molasses and dates were simply used as a source of sugar for the yeast to transform into alcohol).
Spruce beer has been enjoyed for centuries, and even the Vikings enjoyed an alcoholic version thereof that they believed granted them fertility as well as strength in battle (not to mention helping to fend off scurvy during long sea voyages). This non-alcoholic soda version might not be quite that powerful, but it’s bubbly, delicious, and would undoubtedly earn Ægir’s seal of approval.
Beers brewed with Spruce, and other varieties of Pine, were introduced to Scotland by the Vikings. They would spike beers with fresh Spruce Tips prior to long journeys and before battle.
Less is more! Start with a small amount of spruce flavor for your first spruce beer. You can always add more in your next batch.
If you find you’ve added too much spruce to your beer, give it some time to age. You might be surprised how an “undrinkable” beer can change over several months.
SPRUCE BEER RECIPE
5 litres of water
100g spruce needles
One thumb-sized piece of bruised root ginger
600g malt extract (alternatively molasses, treacle, or honey)
1 packet ale yeast (available from home brew stockist or online)
Bring the water to the boil and add the spruce, hops and ginger. Boil for 30 minutes. Stir in the malt extract and boil for a further 10 minutes. Strain into a fermentation bin or food grade bucket and, when cooled to room temperature, add the yeast.
Leave in a warm place for one week. Siphon into bottles. Will be ready to drink immediately.