In keeping with last week’s spruce theme — Sprucelets: An Original Adirondack Medicine — is a look at one of the most common drinks in early Adirondack history: spruce beer. Like the aforementioned Sprucelets, it was believed to be of medicinal value due in part to its vitamin C content. Several evergreens share those same properties, and their use dates back centuries.
In one of the earliest mentions of evergreens used as a health aid in North America, there remains disagreement as to which tree along the St. Lawrence River (at today’s Quebec City) was used by Jacques Cartier in 1536 to cure scurvy. His voyage journal says that after learning nearby natives were quite ill with an unknown disease, Cartier quarantined his men on their ships, which were frozen in the ice.
As he noted, the precaution didn’t work. “Not withstanding these defences, the disease begun inside our group, in an unknown manner, as some of us were getting weak, their legs were becoming big and swollen, the nerves as black as coal. The sailors were dotted with drops of blood, and then the disease went to their hips, thighs, shoulders, arms and neck. Their mouths were so infected and rotten that all the flesh fell to the level of the roots of the teeth which had fallen out.”
Cartier learned from a Huron friend that the boiling of bark and other parts taken from a local tree produced both a curative drink and a healing salve. He followed the instructions and reported a nearly miraculous recovery of his sick men. With no clear translation available of the native language, arguments persist today as to whether the tree in question was spruce, white pine, cedar, or balsam.
Sailors and explorers shared this knowledge of evergreens, and spruce beer eventually became a staple of the British military. Two hundred years after Cartier’s crisis in Quebec, it was a common beverage in the New World. On the coastal islands of St. Pierre, Miquelon, and Newfoundland, it was readily available as one of the most popular drinks. In the eastern Adirondacks in the mid-1700s, Robert Rogers and his famous Rangers regularly partook of spruce beer for its healthful benefits.
In the late 1750s, when General Jeffery Amherst controlled the Lake George-Crown Point area, breweries were established to supply forts across the region. Such was the need that Wilson’s Orderly Book from 1759 reported, “As by the Order of the 7th June it was said that Spruce Beer would be Brewed for the Army, it is not thereby intended to hinder any People from brewing Spruce Beer. All Suttlers [merchants who supply provisions] are at Liberty to Brew as much as they will.… Spruce Beer will be Brewed for the Health and Conveniency of the Troops.”
Routinely, infantrymen were sent into the surrounding mountains to harvest spruce for the brewers, who produced many barrels of drink at a time. Amherst’s own journal said, “The men looked well and healthy, the camp dry and good. Plenty of spruce beer will keep them in health.” (Several recipes for spruce beer, including Amherst’s, can be found in old military journals.) And on October 12, 1777, during a Council of War on the heights of Saratoga, General Johnny Burgoyne lamented his precarious situation: “The provisions of the army may hold out to the 20th; there is neither rum nor spruce beer.” His surrender came just five days later.
Throughout the 1800s, alcoholic and non-alcoholic spruce beers were routine fare in the Adirondacks and foothills. There was once a Spruce Beer Hotel south of Albany, and a firm in the 1870s, Hennessey & Nolan, advertised themselves as “engaged in the business of manufacturing and bottling soda, mineral water, and spruce beer at the city of Albany.”
Other companies did the same, but in the Adirondack region, spruce beer was principally a home brew made from locally harvested spruce tips (new growth) or from the refined essence of spruce. Farmers and woodsmen offered it as a welcoming drink for guests, and many restaurants, bars, and saloons had it on the menu. Recipes appeared occasionally in Adirondack-area newspapers, and its reputation flourished as the drink of the common man.
In time, spruce beer—like ginger beer, root beer, lemon beer, chamomile tea, birch beer, sassafras tea, and others—became a popular spring tonic that was served to household members of all ages. It wasn’t until the 1930s that its popularity waned, and since that time, it has seldom been produced in the Adirondack region. In Canada, meanwhile, spruce-flavored beer, water, and soda still have a following.
With the rise in popularity of craft brews, spruce beer has enjoyed a minor resurgence, but it’s not the drink of old, which varied in quality depending on the brewer. My own experience with alcoholic beverages, which is minimal, nevertheless contains three standout moments. When I was still younger than 10, begging my grandfather for a taste of his “special drink” finally bore fruit—perhaps a poor analogy since there’s nothing sweet about the memory. I took a swallow, and then choked, spit, and gasped for air. He told me it was rum, but I swore to my mother it was kerosene—and she gave us both a scolding. The second incident involved sampling a friend’s version of dandelion wine back when home kits were popular. I still cringe at the thought of that horrid taste. We were teenagers seeking a buzz, but I suspect those kits were part of a secret plan by parents to steer children away from alcohol.
The third incident was similar to the wine effort, but the product this time was spruce beer. Spruce smells great, so it had to taste great, right? After one drink—and another, just to be sure (that’s teenage thinking for you)—I was sure I had swallowed Pine Sol.
In my recollection—factoring in car-siphoning occasions from the distant past—gasoline rates just above those three in taste. But since my first sampling of spruce beer came from a decidedly amateur source, that wasn’t a fair assessment. The best solution? Seek professional help. (I clearly heard you snicker!)
That meant visiting a friend with real beer expertise. George “Speedy” Arnold is a well-known musician, artist, and author who operates Arnold’s Grocery & Likker Lokker in Keeseville, a store perhaps best known for the amazing variety of beers in stock at any one time—now more than 500 flavors! Six-packs, four-packs, and singles include such unusual names as Old Engine Oil, Sticky Toffee Pudding Ale, and Pachamama Porter (“with sweet potatoes, purple mais, and chili peppers”). He sent me home with a bottle of Dogfish Head’s Pennsylvania Tuxedo, which the label says “has a grassy citrus kick complemented by the resinous conifer notes of fresh green spruce tips.” Bingo!
I’m no beer expert, but here’s what happened. Jill (my wife and business partner, who’s had a beer or two in her past) took a drink, and her face contorted in ways I hadn’t thought possible. While she rushed to purge the taste from her mouth, I drank the whole bottle—definitely very sprucy—and didn’t find it bad at all. It might fall in the category of acquired tastes, but I can see why our Adirondack ancestors swore by it.
Photos: Beer label from Dogfish Head Brewery; US daily rations list (1776); a shelf unit at Speedy Arnold’s Grocery & Likker Lokker in Keeseville (courtesy of Speedy Arnold)
A version of this article first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack.