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Posts Tagged ‘beer brewing’

winter spruce branches-vjs

Image of evergreen branches © Vic Sanborn

Inquiring readers,
Spruce beer was a popular beverage during Jane Austen’s lifetime. On December 9, 1808, Austen wrote her sister Cassandra from Castle Square:

But all this,” as my dear Mrs. Piozzi says, “is flight and fancy, and nonsense, for my master has his great casks to mind and I have my little children.” It is you, however, in this instance, that have the little children, and I that have the great cask for we are brewing spruce beer again.”

(More about this quote later)

 

About spruce beer

According to Wikipedia, spruce beer describes an alcoholic or non-alcoholic drink that is made from the buds and needles of spruce trees. The flavor depends on which species of spruce grows near the brewer, the season in which the needles and buds are collected, and the recipe used in the preparation.
The taste of spruce beer varies. Some describe a pleasant spruce tip bitterness to the alcoholic version, while another source states that spruce beer soda, a non-alcoholic soda largely made in Canada, tastes like

a Christmas tree in a glass … The soda itself was very effervescent and light, with very sharp flavor. It tasted like the smell of Vicks VapoRub and pine needles.” – Eater

Images of spruce beer show a dark brown-greenish concoction, which isn’t attractive to my eye but pleases a variety of palates. According to Andrew Schloss in an article for The Splendid Table, the taste of the “piney turpene flavor, ” reminiscent of the “essence of the forest,” is an acquired one.

 

A short history of spruce beer

Martin Cornell in “A Short History of Spruce Beer Part Two: The North American Connection” quotes Swedish-Finish botanist Pehr Kalm about the discovery of spruce beer by French, Dutch, and British settlers as early as the 17th century. Kalm wrote in letters to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences:

Spruce beer is chiefly used by the French in Canada; a considerable quantity is indeed made by the Dutch who live round Hudson’s river, in the most Northern parts, but the English seldom have it except in New England and New Scotland; because in Canada the tree is very common…”

The botanist visited the colonies from 1748-1752 when he observed that French Canadians largely drank spruce beer. The origins of spruce beer are not quite clear. According to Jim Dykstra in “A History of Spruce Beer,” Beer Connoisseur, 11/07/2016,

spruce beer has been around for quite some time. Depending on who you ask, it was either first made by indigenous North Americans pre-European Scandinavians – “Vikings purportedly brewed it for fertility and strength in battle.” – Jim Dykstra, A History of Spruce Beer: Old World Cheer, or Any Time of Year 

jane-austen-brewercol-vjsmed

Drawing © Vic Sanborn

Spruce beer was consumed to ward off scurvy

In the 18th Century the British navy encouraged drinking spruce beer as a treatment for scurvy. (Spruce and other evergreens, such as hemlock pine and juniper were used as sources for Vitamin C. – Small Beer Press). Captain James Cook wrote in Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1784),

Besides fish, we had other refreshments in abundance. Scurvy-grass, celery and portable soup were boiled every day with the wheat and pease; and we had spruce beer for our drink. Such a regimen soon removed all seeds of the scurvy from our people, if any of them had contracted it. “– April Fulton, Don’t Waste That Christmas Tree: Turn it Into Spruce Beer, NPR

Fulton states that the connection between spruce beer and scurvy prevention, while strongly supported in the 18th and 19th centuries, has largely been debunked by modern medicine, since fermentation destroys vitamin C.  In “A History of Spruce Beer,” Jim Dykstra writes that the beer wasn’t always alcoholic and that native Americans tended to use spruce infusions, whereas colonists brewed and boiled the beverage, which significantly reduced its ability to prevent scurvy.

Still, the connection between spruce beer and Jane Austen’s sailor brothers, and the Georgian belief that the beer was a sort of elixir for scurvy cannot be ignored. European sailors spread word about spruce beer around the world. (Dykstra) Sadly, the recipe that Austen used is lost to time, but Benjamin Franklin, who was introduced to the beer during his stay in France (1776-1777) shared a recipe in French:

Way of Making Beer with Essence of Spruce:
For a Cask containing 80 bottles, take one pot of Essence and 13 Pounds of Molases. – or the same amount of unrefined Loaf Sugar; mix them well together in 20 pints of hot Water: Stir together until they make a Foam, then pour it into the Cask you will then fill with Water: add a Pint of good Yeast, stir it well together and let it stand 2 or 3 Days to ferment, after which close the Cask, and after a few days it will be ready to be put into Bottles, that must be tightly corked. Leave them 10 or 12 Days in a cool Cellar, after which the Beer will be good to drink.” – Food History & Culture
“Don’t Waste That Christmas Tree: Turn It Into Spruce Beer,” April Fulton, NPR, January 4, 2013

This recipe must have produced enough beer for several weeks, if not months depending on the drinker’s daily intake. There are other, more modest recipes from this era easily found online, including recipes created for today’s palate.

 

Back to the Jane Austen spruce beer quote

In this section I venture a few “educated guesses” about segments of Jane Austen’s quote. “Mr. Piozzi in charge of the great casks” most likely explains that by the time Jane wrote her novels, brew masters, who had once predominantly been women, were replaced by men during the age of industrialization when public taverns began to make profits. In the 17th century, brewing, once thought of as a woman’s domain in the kitchen, was overtaken by men and widows, who inherited their husbands’ businesses. Mrs. Piozzi mentions her domestic duties “having her little children” with no connection to the great casks.

Then Jane Austen’s writes:

It is you, however, in this instance, that have the little children, and I that have the great cask for we are brewing spruce beer again.”

In this instance Cassandra was most likely minding her widowed brother James’s children, while Jane oversaw domestic duties.

While commercial brewing became the domain of men, home brewing remained in the hands of women in the countryside. Housewives, mothers, and daughters, as in Jane Austen’s case, brewed ales and beers, and made wines for household consumption. According to William Cobbett, this domestic habit continued until the last quarter of the 18th century (Van Dekken). Jane’s quote, written in 1808, proves that this domestic practice continued well beyond that date.

We don’t know if the recipe Austen used was alcoholic or nonalcoholic, and I wonder if it was influenced by her sailor brothers, whose concerns about scurvy while spending months at sea must have been on their minds. During the Napoleonic Wars, the British navy encouraged the use of spruce beer. Individuals sailing vast distances for months at sea or enduring long, harsh winters in the far north faced decreased access to vitamin C as fresh fruit was consumed or rotted. For sailors, stored casks of spruce beer became one way of staving off the debilitating results of scurvy. For colonists facing a long winter without fresh fruits and vegetables, making the brew from abundant fir trees became a life saver.

Thank you, Tony Grant, for forwarding the article “Jane Austen Brewed her own Specialty Beer” to me.

 

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