At this time of year, it can be hard to imagine gardens full of fresh fruits and vegetables. Luckily, we have other options: importing and indoor agriculture among them. The Victorians were not so fortunate. Preserving and pickling offered some access to fruits and vegetables through the winter, but malnutrition remained a risk. Those undertaking long ocean voyages were even more at risk—even in fine weather, produce could not be stored on-board for long periods, which could lead to sailors getting scurvy.
Beer to the rescue!
Spruce beer is beer brewed with the needles, shoots, buds, or inner bark of spruce trees. While Jacques Cartier explored the St. Lawrence in the 1530s, the Iroquois shared a scurvy remedy—boiling spruce needles to make a Vitamin C-rich tea. By the 1700s, the British Navy was making an alcoholic version, brewing beer with evergreen needles and shoots.
Explorer James Cook brewed beer during his voyages to New Zealand—indeed, spruce beer was the first beer brewed in New Zealand. However, the ingredients were slightly different. The spruce trees used by Jacques Cartier do not grow in New Zealand. As an alternative, he used manuka and rimu trees, along with molasses to provide a source of fermentable sugar.
Interestingly, recent scholarship has cast doubt on the efficacy of spruce beer as an antiscorbutic. While spruce does contain Vitamin C, the amounts diminish with fermentation. Anecdotal evidence suggests it offered at least some benefit—not as much as spruce tea, and certainly not as effective as citrus fruits—but enough to slow the progression of scurvy.
Whilst traipsing around the United States, I was fortunate enough to try some spruce beer—and not just any spruce beer, but spruce beer similar to that brewed by Captain Cook. The Wigram Brewing Company is a craft brewery located in Christchurch, NZ: they brewed their first commercial beer in 2001 and officially opened the brewery doors in 2003. (Yes, drinking an NZ beer in the US…long story.) Their James Cook Spruce Beer is a version of Cook’s brew made with rimu and tea tree.
It’s a dark coppery colour on the pour, with a busy nose: there’s quite a bit of caramel/sweet aromas, with just a hint of pines. On first taste, the caramels dominate, and the mouthfeel is thick, nearly syrupy on the palate. The pine comes in the aftertaste—a rush of it rising up through the nose. It’s quite different from our Black Creek spruce beer. The pine isn’t quite as intense, and there’s a slight floral quality that I assume comes from the tea tree.
It’s certainly interesting to try beers from across the world—another benefit to living in the 21st century. Well, that and oranges in February. 🙂