Sunday, February 13, 2011

Review & Recipe: 18th Century Spruce Beer

No, it does not taste like spruce. At least not to me…

Last December we were lucky enough to get our hands on four bottles of a very hot commodity – Garrison Brewing Co. Spruce Beer. Just before Christmas they released a very small amount, if I remember only 1,200 litres. It was made from the fresh tips of our local spruce trees.

The beer was launched December 17, and was all sold in just a few of days. We made a point of making sure we were there to get some.

It had a barely recognizable spruce taste and was somewhat "citrusy" (very hard to describe), like a Scottish Innis & Gunn, or many of the other interesting micro-brewery products. Not that it tasted like Innis & Gunn, just that it had that impressive difference from usual brew product.

Unlike most large brewery output (Keiths, Molson, etc.) this stuff had flavour. It was a joy to drink. It also was 7.5% alcohol content, so unwise to drink too many…

I had never heard of Spruce Beer previously and was amazed to find it has a rich local history. When the British garrison was stationed in Halifax, each soldier had a ration of 2 quarts per man per day. Thank goodness The Citadel never had to fire a shot in anger. I greatly doubt if they could have seen to hit anything if they drank it all. I assume they must have shared it with the "workers on the stroll" on Trollope street (actual name of a street directly behind the Citadel, I kid you not).

I found a YouTube clip of a local Haligonian tasting this last season's Garrison output. I hope you enjoy it. He says it tastes like spruce. I don't quite get that. To me it's more of a good craft beer taste, as opposed to the big name mass produced water that's passed off as beer (ever had a real IPA as opposed to our green-canned popular version?). I don't know who this gentleman is, but his post name was "thecyr". Thanks go out to him.

So Garrison's Spruce Beer is gone for a year, and I can only dream, or do I have to wait? I've found several recipes for Spruce Beer that are all over the map in ease/difficulty. Some call for proper brew-making equipment, others just a clean bucket with a lid. Others a massive amount of spruce, others not.  And so on, and so on.

Image from Wiki (don't use the Ladybug...)
I can't imagine it's too difficult a process, the beer being a common commodity in ages past. After some recipe, and soul, searching i settled on one particular set of directions to share. This recipe seems simple enough, and is made and served on-site at Monticello in the United States, so it can't be poison... I will almost certainly be trying this recipe when the summer heat comes back to make it easier to work.

The following recipe uses a crock, but clay doesn't have any important reactive properties with what it contains. I think it's more of a case of keeping it in the dark while it ferments. That, and the recipe is written in the 18th century, when plastic buckets were harder to get your hands on… So I'll be buying a big plastic bucket to try this. And a large stock pot.

Spruce Beer Recipe (from "Pioneer Thinking"):
5 gallons of water
1/8 pound of hops
1/2 cup of dried, bruised ginger root
1 pound of the outer twigs of spruce fir
3 quarts of molasses
1/2 yeast cake dissolved in 1/2 cup of warm water (look in local brewing shops for the real thing, not bread yeast)

image from
In a large kettle combine the water, hops, ginger root and spruce fir twigs. Boil together until all the hops sink to the bottom of the kettle. 

Strain into a large crock and stir in the molasses. After this has cooled add the yeast. Cover and leave to set for 48 hours. (Other recipes strain again at this point.  You be the judge.)

Then bottle, cap and leave in a warm place (70-75 degrees F) for 5 days. It will now be ready to drink.

Store upright in a cool place.

To learn more about Garrison, go to


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