Medicinal Beers

Hello readers! You may remember our previous beer writer Katie’s informative post about medicinal beers used in Victorian times. If there’s one thing i’ve learned about beer in the 19th century, it was not just a social drink. It had many purposes, including health benefits.

BCPV Daily Schedule July 30
One of the many great primary sources on eating and drinking habits in 19th century Canada

In her post, Katie had done some research about how beer was beneficial to 19th century Canadians:

For nineteenth century Canadians, beer supplemented the diet. Beer contains several of the B-complex vitamins (not thiamine, alas), and depending on style, can be a source of iron, too. In her Female Emigrant’s Guide (1854), writer Catherine Parr Traill laments the comparative lack of private brewing among families, explaining: “During the very hot weather, some cooling and strengthening beverage is much required by men who have to work out in the heat of the sun; and the want of it is often supplied by whisky diluted with water, or by cold water, which, when drunk in large quantities, is dangerous to the health, and should, if possible, be avoided” (Parr Trail, The Female Emigrant’s Guide, 137). Beer was not only thirst-quencher, but fortifier.

Katie also mentioned a few different types of medicinal beers: ginger beer, dandelion beer, root beer, and spruce beer. Let’s take a look at each of these types of beer, as well as their intended purpose in the 19th century.

Ginger Beer
Ginger beer was thought to combat nausea and other stomach problems. Ginger is also an anti-inflammatory, which was especially appealing to those with arthritis and chronic pain problems that could not just take pain medication to ease their inflammation. Of course, a real Victorian ginger beer brewed with generous amounts of real fresh ginger is much more likely to live up to these expectations than a store bought ginger ale soda would.

Dandelion Beer
We have actually made our very own dandelion stout at the Black Creek historic brewery in years past. Dandelion was a popular medicinal ingredient in Victorian times, as it was thought to cleanse the kidneys and liver, and prevent kidney stones. Dandelions contain a number of vitamins, and were also extremely easy to find and harvest. Dandelion wine was a more common choice, but dandelion beer did exist as well. Many websites dedicated to making homemade dandelion wine for health purposes exist today, showing that the tradition of using dandelions in beverages still stands.

Root Beer
Katie published an excellent, in depth post about Victorian root beer.  To quote her post:

Root beer is a beverage traditionally made with sassafras roots and/or sarsaparilla as its main flavouring agent. The Indigenous populations of North America were making sassafras-based beverages long before European contact, using it to treat various ailments from wounds to fevers. Unsurprisingly, then, when “root beer” began to be sold through the mid-nineteenth century, it was touted as a healthful drink.

Of course, this is a little ironic as it was later discovered that sassafras is actually carcinogenic, enough so that it was banned by the FDA in 1960.

Spruce Beer
Spruce beer is a beer I get asked about quite a bit down in the brewery,  and many people ask if it actually was used to prevent scurvy. The answer is yes, as explained by our previous beer writer Karrell:

Colonial soldiers learned from the First Nations peoples that spruce could prevent and cure scurvy: a scourge of mariners and soldiers alike prior to the 19th century.  Scurvy was recognized as a disease caused by a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, but it wasn’t understood to be caused by a deficiency of Vitamin C until 1932!  Thus, while soldiers and sailors didn’t know that spruce was an excellent source of Vitamin C or why Spruce Beer kept scurvy at bay, they did know it was good for what ailed them!

We’ve actually made our own spruce beer in the historic brewery, but it had a taste that didn’t agree with everyone. Apparently, it tasted quite similar to a liquid Christmas tree!

So there are some great examples of some medicinal beers that helped the Victorians cure what “aled” them! Of course, it’s much more beneficial to use modern cures for what currently ails you, but it’s interesting to see how resourceful Victorians managed to make medicinal ales out of everything from dandelions to spruce needles! Many of these recipes can be found online if you’re curious, but maybe just stick to the pharmacy when you’re feeling under the weather.

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