In the annals of beer, there are many styles that have been lost to the mysteries of time. One such style could easily be made from the Christmas trees that we discard this time of year. That style is the spruce beer.
The style was common among ancient Viking civilizations, 18th-century British sailors and early American colonists. But, as a modern style, piney, resinous bevvies are less common, though the flavor is often associated with IPAs.
“Ancient Scandinavians and their Viking descendants brewed beer from young shoots of Norway spruce, drinking the beer for strength in battle, for fertility and to prevent scurvy on long sea voyages,” according to the second edition of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America.
Further evidence of the use of spruce beer to help keep scurvy under control comes from Capt. James Cook’s 1784 A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, “Two of our men were employed in brewing spruce beer; while others filled the water-casks, collected grass for the cattle and cut wood. … Such a regimen soon removed all seeds of the scurvy from our people. …”
The piney, alcoholic beverage is full of vitamin C that cures scurvy, a common disease among poorly nourished sailors.
But sailors were not the only imbibers of spruce beer. As early as 1500, during the reign of King Henry VII, the poem “Colyn Blowbolles Testament” mentions the brew among drinks served at the protagonist’s funeral: “Spruce beer, and the beer of Hambur [Hamburg]/Whiche makyth oft tymes men to stambur.”
This beer is from Prussia and is an alteration of the German, Sprossen-bier, literally “sprout beer,” for green sprouts used in brewing. It is interesting to note that Geoffrey Chaucer referred to Prussia as “Sprewse,” making spruce beer’s name to mean beer from Sprewse.
Sprossen-bier was also called Danziger bier or Joppenbier in Germany. In 1588’s Neuwe Kreuterbuch (“New Book of Herbs”), German physician Jacob Theodor von Bergzabern, aka Tabernaemontanus, described its beautiful reddish-brown color and as being “thick like a syrup.”
Another historic account of spruce beer comes from the Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz, who took a barrel of Danzig beer on his 1596 journey around Norway and Russia in search of the Northwest Passage. Unfortunately, they were stranded 900 miles from the North Pole and the cask froze.
In the early 1700s, newspaper records began to appear of spruce beer being imported to England, along with advertisements for drinking establishments where it was served. The beer was often lauded for its healthful benefits and thus commanded a much higher price.
In the 19th century, it came to be known as “black beer.” Black beer breweries popped up throughout Northern England, along with claims of the drink being a cure for colds and other ailments. In 1922, W Severn & Co of Derby said its Black Spruce Beer, “will keep indefinitely … fortifies the system against Chills, Colds and Weakness as nothing else can … invaluable for growing children.”
Today, spruce beers tend to be associated with flavors found in IPAs. There are a few modern spruce beers, such as Alaskan Brewing Co.’s Winter Ale, Beau’s Brewing Company’s Spruce Moose pale ale, but the style has lost its popularity and soon may exist only in history.