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Jane Austen’s Spruce Beer

Spruce beer!

“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; but my meaning really is, that I am extremely foolish in writing all this unnecessary stuff when I have so many matters to write about that my paper will hardly hold it all. Little matters they are, to be sure, but highly important.
Jane Austen, to Cassandra
Southampton, Wednesday, January 7, 180

Portrait of Jeffrey Amherst (1717-1797), By Joshua Reynolds, 1765

In the June, 1759, orders for the Highland Regiment in North America stipulated that: “Spruce beer is to be brewed for the health and conveniency of the troops which will be served at prime cost. Five quarts of molasses will be put into every barrel of Spruce Beer. Each gallon will cost nearly three coppers.” Winter orders that year instructed that each post should keep enough molasses on hand “to make two quarts of beer for each man every day.”

Spruce beer was a common drink in Georgian England and was brewed for reasons including those of health (it was cleaner than water in many cases), holiday drinking, and sometimes simply as a tasty option. Brewed along similar lines as Root Beer and Ginger Beer, it could be drunk fresh or allowed to ferment.

The British Army’s recipe for Spruce Beer:

Take 7 Pounds of good spruce & boil it well till the bark peels off, then take the spruce out & put three Gallons of Molasses to the Liquor & and boil it again, scum it well as it boils, then take it out the kettle & put it into a cooler, boil the remained of the water sufficient for a Barrel of thirty Gallons, if the kettle is not large enough to boil it together, when milkwarm in the Cooler put a pint of Yest into it and mix well. Then put it into a Barrel and let it work for two or three days, keep filling it up as it works out. When done working, bung it up with a Tent Peg in the Barrel to give it vent every now and then. It may be used in up to two or three days after. If wanted to be bottled it should stand a fortnight in the Cask. It will keep a great while.
From the Journal of General Jeffrey Amherst (1717-1797), Governor-General of British North America

Spruce Beer

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

  1. In a large kettle combine the water, hops, ginger root and spruce fir twigs.
  2. Boil together until all the hops sink to the bottom of the kettle.
  3. Strain into a large crock and stir in the molasses.
  4. After this has cooled add the yeast.
  5. Cover and leave to set for 48 hours.
  6. Then bottle, cap and leave in a warm place (70-75 degrees F) for 5 days. It will now be ready to drink.
  7. Store upright in a cool place.

Other options include:

  • Replacing the hops in any home-brew recipe with a doubled amount of the new needles of Sitka spruce gives a wonderfully tasty, slightly resiny brew.
  • You can use Spruce essence, but it is extremely powerful and can over power your brew to the point of being undrinkable. Here’s a good basis for a Spruce Beer. Modify to your own desire.

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