How to brew like an 18th century Virginian

Spruce ale and tavern porterI live half-way between Richmond and Hampton – which gave a small but still slightly odd twist to my 3,000-mile journey last month to deliver a talk in another town halfway between Richmond and Hampton. Different Richmond and Hampton, of course: the pair in Virginia, not the ones in the western suburbs of Greater London†.

The talk was in Williamsburg, Virginia, as part of a terrific two-day event called Ales through the Ages featuring more than a dozen speakers from Europe and the United States, put on by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia until 1780, when capital status was transferred to Richmond, and the town went into a decline that lasted through until the first quarter of the 20th century. Ironically, its decline was its subsequent salvation. Since there was no incentive (or cash) to knock them down and rebuild them, many of Williamsburg’s original colonial-era buildings remained standing, albeit increasingly rough-looking. Eventually, in the late 1920s, with campaigners concerned that genuine American history was literally falling to pieces in front of them, John D Rockefeller jr, whose father, one of the founders of Standard Oil, was the richest man in the world, agreed to fund what would become Colonial Williamsburg, a living reproduction of 18th century America. Today Williamsburg is a considerable tourist attraction with restored buildings, actors walking the streets dressed like 18th century colonials and, of course, demonstrations of the lifestyles and crafts of the 18th century. Naturally enough that includes food and drink, and naturally enough that includes brewing. Continue reading How to brew like an 18th century Virginian

A short history of spruce beer part two: the North American connection

Jacques Cartier
Jacques Cartier supposedly pictured learning from a Canadian First Nationer how to save his men from scurvey: but the chap with the buckskin suit and the metal axe with the tepees in the background looks like a Plains Indian 1,500 miles and 220 years away from home rather than a Huron

Early European explorers in North America had to be shown the healthy properties of the spruce tree by the existing inhabitants. When the Breton explorer Jacques Cartier overwintered in Quebec in 1535-36 on his second visit to the land he had named Canada, almost all his men fell ill with scurvy through lack of fresh food, leaving just ten out of 110 well enough to look after the rest. Huron Indian women showed them how to make tea and poultices from the bark of a local tree, which quickly returned them to health. That tree was probably White Cedar, Thuja occidentalis, a member of the cypress family, rather than spruce. But later French settlers turned to spruce trees, a better source of Vitamin C, and thus a better way to combat scurvy, the curse of long-distance voyagers, than cedars. The secretary to the new French governor of Cape Breton Island, Thomas Pichon, writing in 1752, noted that the inhabitants of Port-Toulouse (now St Peter’s) “were the first that brewed an excellent sort of antiscorbutic [“la bière très bonne” in the original French], of the tops of the spruce-fir”, “Perusse” or “Pruche” in Pichon’s French.

Continue reading A short history of spruce beer part two: the North American connection

A short history of spruce beer part one: the Danzig connection

Danzic circa 1700: are those kegs of spruce beer on the quayside?
Danzic circa 1700: are those kegs of spruce beer on the quayside?

Spruce beer is made from the tips of spruce trees. Except that the connection is not as simple as it appears: it is pretty much a coincidence that spruce beer and spruce trees have the same name.

There are actually two traditions of spruce beer in Britain: the older, the Danzig or Black Beer tradition, only died out very recently, while the other, which could be called the “North American tradition”, was hugely popular in Regency times, and included Jane Austen among its fans, but disappeared nearly 200 years ago on this side of the Atlantic.

The first mention of “spruce beer” in English is from around 1500, when Henry VII was on the throne, in a poem called Colyn Blowbolles Testament, in which a hung-over drunkard is persuaded to write his will. Colyn lists the drinks he wants served at his funeral, including more than a dozen types of wine, mead, “stronge ale bruen in fattes and in tonnes”, “Sengle bere, and othir that is dwobile”, and also “Spruce beer, and the beer of Hambur [Hamburg]/Whiche makyth oft tymes men to stambur.”

Norway spruce
Norway spruce

The fact that spruce beer and “the beer of Hambur[g]” were mentioned together is because both came from North Germany. The name “spruce beer” is an alteration of the German “Sprossen-bier”, literally “sprouts beer”, more meaningfully “leaf-bud beer”, since it was flavoured with the leaf-buds or new sprouts of Norway spruce, Picea abies, or silver fir, Abies alba. “Sprossen” was meaningless to English-speakers, but in early modern English the similar-sounding “Spruce” was another name for Prussia, from which country’s main port, Danzig, Sprossen-bier was exported. “Sprossen-bier” became in English the more understandable “Spruce beer”, meaning, originally, “Prussian beer”. (Chaucer called the country “Sprewse”, and it was being called “Spruce-land” as late as 1639.)

Meanwhile English had to wait more than a century and a half after the beer was named to get its own word for Picea abies, the tree known as Fichte in German and gran in Norwegian. When the tree did get an English name, first mentioned by the naturalist John Evelyn in 1670, because it, too, like the beer, came to Britain via Prussia, it was called the “Spruce”, short for “Spruce fir”, that is, “Prussian fir”. Thus “spruce beer” is not actually named for the spruce tree, and “spruce beer” in English is around 170 years older as a phrase than “spruce tree”. (The adjective “spruce” meaning “neat” or “smartly dressed” probably also comes from “Spruce” meaning Prussia, via “Spruce leather”, leather from Prussia that was a favourite, it appears, among Tudor dandies.)

Continue reading A short history of spruce beer part one: the Danzig connection

Dishonest nonsense and Camra’s Clause Four moment

Is the Campaign for Real Ale about to have its Clause Four moment? For younger readers, Clause Four was the part of the constitution of the Labour Party that contained the aim of achieving “the common ownership of the means of production”, and it was when Tony Blair, Labour’s new party leader, and his allies managed to get that dumped in the dustbin of discarded socialist rhetoric in 1995 that New Labour was born. Traditionalists saw the policy celebrated in Clause Four, the rejection of capitalism, as the core principle that the Labour Party was founded upon. The Blairites saw this as outdated rhetoric that was damaging the party’s election chances, and dumping it as “revitalising” the Labour Party. Camra, you may have noticed, has now launched its own self-styled “revitalisation project”, designed to get a consensus on where the campaign, at 45 years old, should be going next.

The question being asked is “how broad and inclusive should our campaigning be”, and the choices offered in the survey on Camra’s website, frankly, are totally dishonest. There are six, and they are that the campaign should represent

  • Just drinkers of real ale, or
  • Drinkers of real ale, cider and perry, or
  • All beer drinkers, or
  • All beer, cider and perry drinkers, or
  • All pub-goers or
  • All drinkers
Andrew Boorde real ale campaigner
The Tudor physician Andrew Boorde (c 1490-1549), one of the earliest campaigners for real ale, who complained that while ale was ‘a naturall drynke’ for an Englishman, beer ‘doth make a man fat’.

But there isn’t a commentator that doesn’t know that four out of six of those choices are irrelevant nonsense, and the only real question Camra is asking is, “Look, are we finally going to ditch Clause Four start supporting craft keg as well as cask ale or not?”

Now, I’m aware that the support for cider and perry is controversial among some sections of Camra activists, and there are even some who question Camra’s pub campaigns, but it’s dishonesty through omission to stick those issues in there as if they were really a meaningful part of the debate about Camra’s future, and a disservice to the overwhelming majority of Camra’s membership not to make it clearer what this is really all about. In the 16-page document mailed to all Camra members about the “Revitalisation Project”, reference is made to Camra’s equivalent of Clause Four, that definition of “real ale” adopted in 1973, two years after the campaign was founded by four men who knew nothing, at that time about the technicalities of beer, only that they didn’t like the big-brand keg variety, which definition insists that the only sort of beer worth drinking is “matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed” and is “served without the use of extaneous carbon dioxide”.

Continue reading Dishonest nonsense and Camra’s Clause Four moment