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Ritual & Medicinal

Spruce Beer

This Christmas tree elixir kept Vikings and Captain Cook alive.

If the only fruit in your house during the holidays is fruitcake, fear not. There’s another way to stave off scurvy without eating the artillery you’ve been saving for the annual Great Fruitcake Toss. For centuries, indigenous North Americans, Vikings, and Colonists stayed alive and well using the tips of the tree that millions of people throw away every year after the Christmas season.

For several centuries, seafaring explorers remained relatively healthy by chugging spruce beer, a drink made by boiling the tree’s green tips. Voyagers recognized the evergreens were a source of nutrients in Scandinavia and the Great White North, even during the most barren and bleak of winters. Spruce appeared in both alcoholic and nonalcoholic preparations; however, fermenting the young needles strips them of their vitamin C, so alcoholic versions weren’t (successfully) used as a treatment against scurvy.

Ancient Norwegians believed the brew offered strength in battle, enhanced fertility, and kept them healthy during long stretches at sea. By the 16th century, European explorers in North America were recording the use of spruce to keep sailors scurvy-free. In Newfoundland, it became one of the most popular, readily available drinks around. Captain James Cook describes two of his men brewing the fragrant beer for the crew’s daily consumption in his 1784 book, Voyage to the Pacific Ocean. The British navy also became dependent on the elixir as a cure and prevention for scurvy. Eighteenth-century British and Colonial American armies were equipped with a constant ration of the stuff. Spruce beer remained common until the end of the 1800s, when it faded into obscurity.

Unsurprisingly, the beverage tastes a lot like drinking a Christmas tree. Fans call it “crisp and refreshing,” while others liken the experience to “downing Pine-Sol.” Though a flavor resurgence trend never occurred, in recent years, select craft breweries and soda companies have taken to brewing with the needles for novelty. This time around, spruce is packaged as a luxury good for the curious palate, rather than as a necessary element of basic survival. 

Need to Know

Spruce beer is sold in Canada, but you can have it shipped anywhere. If you've got a Christmas tree handy, you can make a batch of the stuff at home using 18th-century recipes posted online. The most pungent of spruce beer is made with fresh tips, but the needles of a dead Christmas tree will work fine as long as they're still green and not completely dry.

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