More 18th Century soldiers died of malnutrition and disease than by the hands of their enemies. For the British, each soldier was an investment of a nation’s time and resources so keeping them “fit for duty” was not just a humanitarian concern, it was protecting the nations investment. Getting soldiers trained and transported North America only to have them die their first winter was not a recipe for success.
Scurvy, a disease caused by a diet deficient in Vitamin C was the chief destroyer of able-bodied seamen in the Royal Navy and soldiers during the long cold winters of North America (particularly in the far North). For the sailors, the solution was simple. The Navy learned that supplying sailors with citrus, easily obtained in many ports of call, provided the much-needed Vitamin C. These limes and lemons provided to the sailors earned them the moniker – “Limeys.” For soldiers, commonly deployed in much greater numbers, this was not a practical solution. An alternative source of ascorbate was needed.
The answer was the spruce tree. New Englanders, Nova Scotians, French Canadians, and Dutch New Yorkers all discovered the medicinal benefits of brewing a beer from spruce branches and buds. White and black spruce were plentiful and each group of colonists had their own variant of spruce beer. Brewmasters were soon boiling spruce branches and buds, the French Canadians even tossed in spruce cones, into their beer. To prevent the brew from tasting of like a Christmas tree, brewers added grilled wheat, barley or corn into the bubbling copper cauldron. Of the three grains, corn was best at rounding out the flavor and achieving a malt brown beer.
New Englanders added molasses to start the fermentation process and boost the alcohol content. Canadians, preferred maple syrup. When hops were scarce, spruce wood chips were thrown in. This beer was rarely aged but rather enjoyed young, especially in the summer. While the fermentation process was still underway the beer was barreled or more preferably transferred to bottles where it could be consumed the next day. British soldiers were instructed not to roll the barrels of beer when it was being delivered to the various regiments in camp. Clearly spruce beer didn’t like to be shaken as it was highly carbonated and frothy.
“Spruce beer is to be brewed for the health and convenience of the troops, which will be served at prime cost, five quarts of molasses are to be brewed into thirty-two gallons of beer….the beer will be brewed on the 29th instant, and be ready to be delivered to the brigades and the artillery on the 30th, the best and greatest quantity of spruce may be had about half a mile in the rear of the center brigade; each brigade will order a small party to cut and bring wood and spruce; they will likewise make a shed of branches to cover their molasses and beer.”
A shortage of spruce proved quite damaging for the destitute British troops under siege inside the walls of Quebec in April 1760. The hospitals filled with scurvy patients. In desperation, a brew was concocted made from the twigs and needles of hemlock spruce. Its success caused the British commander General James Murray to issue the following order:
“the visible effects of the… hemlock-spruce, which has been given, for some time, to the scorbutic men in the hospitals, put it beyond doubt, that it must also be the best preservative against the scurvy, and, as the lives of brave soldiers are ever to be regards with the utmost attention, it is ordered that the regiments be provided with a sufficient quantity of that particular spruce, which each corps must send for occasionally, and it is to be made into a liquor, according to the method with which the Surgeons are already acquainted, and the commanding officers must be answerable that their men drink of this liquor, at least twice every day, mixed with their allowance of rum.”
From the previous order, it is clear Murray was concerned the troops would not drink the bitter hemlock drink and wisely mixed their rum ration into it. Happily, for the British, hemlock spruce is not related to the poisonous hemlock famously drank as tea ending the life of the Greek philosopher Socrates.
One British officer described the hemlock brew as “very different from that of which our common beverage is made, called by us spruce beer; the leaves of it are exceedingly small, dark coloured, and crisp to the touch, not much unlike the juniper tree… I tasted some of the infusion, which had a compound flavor (I could not tell what to compare it to) and was very strong bitter; it is esteemed one of the greatest purifiers of the blood, and I am much prepossessed in favor of it for gouty constitutions.”
During the siege, French Commander Chevalier de Lévis conveyed under a flag of truce “some branches of the spruce-tree into town, to make beverage for the Governor’s table; application was made for this favor before, and it was positively refused, from a notion that it was wanted for the use of the garrison; as the spruce was accompanied with many polite compliments, his Excellency sent a [wheel of] Cheshire cheese in return.” Whether Lévis was mocking Murray with the delivery of spruce boughs is uncertain. However, Lévis returned Murray’s generosity in kind with a basket of partridges.
The wartime experiences with spruce beer cemented the beverage’s popularity. Both the British Army and Royal Navy continued to benefit from its use. Famous Captain James Cook, who was at the siege of Quebec in 1759, carried this knowledge with him on his adventures in the Pacific Ocean and attributed the good health of his crew partly to spruce beer. When revolution erupted in the American Colonies, spruce beer was “drafted” into the war effort on both sides. By the late 18th century, spruce was distilled down to its “essence” and exported for use elsewhere in the world.