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Winning the French and Indian War with Beer
MORE 18TH CENTURY SOLDIERS DIED between battles than by the hands of their enemies. A healthy army was needed for victory and minimizing attrition from disease was paramount. Afterall, each soldier was an investment of a nation’s time and resources. Getting them trained and transported to a theatre of war, only to have them die their first winter in North America was not a recipe for success.
In the global conflict that the French and Indian War was a part of, Britain embraced a new strategy of waging war on France and its allies. Instead of being bogged down in Europe fighting over the same land that had been contested for centuries, Britain saw their way to victory by attacking its enemy’s colonies in the rest of the world. New France was first on Britain’s shopping list. Considering New France stretched from New Orleans to Nova Scotia, the health of sizeable armies would have to be maintained in the wilderness for years.
Looking for an edge, British war planners fell upon the research of a Swedish botanist Pehr Kalm. In 1748 Kalm had voyaged to North America and toured both New France and the American Colonies, taking careful notes of how its inhabitants adjusted to their backwoods surroundings. Scurvy, a disease caused by a diet deficient in Vitamin C, had plagued the first settlements, and was the chief destroyer of able-bodied seamen in the Royal Navy. How did remote settlers survive the scurvy scourge, far from any sources of grown or imported citrus?
The answer was the spruce tree. New Englanders, Nova Scotians, French Canadians, and Dutch New Yorkers all discovered the medicinal benefits of brewing a beer from spruce branches and buds. White and black spruce were plentiful in that region of North America, though the Dutch on New York’s upper Hudson River had to venture some distance to locate them.
While each group of colonists had their own variant of spruce beer, the settlers of New France were the brewmasters. Instead of just boiling spruce branches and buds, the French Canadians tossed in spruce cones to even out the spruce concoction. To prevent the brew from tasting of like a Christmas tree, the French settlers added grilled wheat, barley or corn into the bubbling copper cauldron. In a pinch, burnt toast could be tossed in. Of the three grains, corn was best at rounding out the flavour and achieving a malt brown beer.
While the Dutch and New Englanders used molasses or common sugar to start the fermentation process, les Canadiens added maple syrup or maple sugar. Spruce wood chips were also thrown in as a substitute to hops and a little yeast completed the recipe. This was a beer to be enjoyed young, especially in the summer. While the fermentation process was still underway the beer was barrelled or more preferably transferred to bottles where it could be consumed the next day. British soldiers were instructed not to roll the barrels of beer when it was being delivered to the various regiments in camp. Clearly spruce beer didn’t like to be shaken.
Having a cold one? With the summer heat, as the Dutch settlers discovered, the spruce beer could easily go sour and convert into liquor if left too long. However, the French Canadians found a solution. It was common for French settlers to fill their cellars with packed snow and ice so they could enjoy cool beverages in the summer. Wisely the bottled beer was kept in a cold cellar which slowed the fermenting and offered the settler a cold brew on a hot day. With limited access to wine, spruce beer or bière d'épinette had been perfected for over a hundred years and had become interwoven into the social fabric of New France.
As accomplished as they were in brewing a healthy beer, les Canadiens were also brilliant at bush warfare. British military operations were constantly overturned by the devilish Canadian militia and their native allies. The war dragged on with little success, and more British troops were forced to winter on the frontier. Brewing spruce beer became a standard activity for the British soldier with foraging parties gathering branches and temporary breweries turning out the healthy brew.
In June 1758, the war turned. After a false start in 1757, the British attacked the naval base of Louisbourg that guarded the mouth of the St. Lawrence and the capital of New France. Once ashore and siege batteries constructed to bombard Louisbourg, what became the next priority for the British? Why brewing spruce beer of course:
"Spruce beer is to be brewed for the health and convenience of the troops, which will be served at prime cost, five quarts of molasses are to be brewed into thirty-two gallons of beer….the beer will be brewed on the 29th instant, and be ready to be delivered to the brigades and the artillery on the 30th, the best and greatest quantity of spruce may be had about half a mile in the rear of the center brigade; each brigade will order a small party to cut and bring wood and spruce; they will likewise make a shed of branches to cover their molasses and beer."
Some contemporaries thought molasses made a better beer than the common sugar, however it was definitely an acquired taste due to beer’s increased thickness. Nutritionally the molasses added potassium, calcium and iron to the soldier’s diet. Some doctors at the time thought spruce beer not only deterred scurvy but also helped with pulmonary tuberculosis and internal ulcers. Whatever the case, the molasses enhanced the medical benefits of the beer. From the letters of Chevalier de Lévis, it also should be noted that the French regulars from Europe were likewise using molasses to make their spruce beer.
A shortage of spruce proved quite damaging for the destitute British troops under siege inside the walls of Quebec in April 1760. The hospitals filled with scurvy patients. In desperation, a brew was concocted made from the twigs and needles of hemlock spruce. Its success caused the British commander General James Murray to issue the following order:
"the visible effects of the… hemlock-spruce, which has been given, for some time, to the scorbutic men in the hospitals, put it beyond doubt, that it must also be the best preservative against the scurvy, and, as the lives of brave soldiers are ever to be regards with the utmost attention, it is ordered that the regiments be provided with a sufficient quantity of that particular spruce, which each corps must send for occasionally, and it is to be made into a liquor, according to the method with which the Surgeons are already acquainted, and the commanding officers must be answerable that their men drink of this liquor, at least twice every day, mixed with their allowance of rum."
The word "liquor" in this context referred to steeped or cooked hemlock. It was not distilled into alcohol. The steeping method involved bruising or mashing the tops and buds of the hemlock, putting them into a tub with boiling water, and occasionally stirring them over a twenty-four-hour period. Patients were forced to drink three pints daily, and doctors even soaked limbs damaged by scurvy into some warmed hemlock-infused liquid.
From the previous order, it is clear Murray was concerned the troops would not drink the bitter hemlock drink and wisely mixed their rum ration into it. Happily, for the British, hemlock spruce is not related to the poisonous hemlock famously drank as tea ending the life of the Greek philosopher Socrates.
One British officer described the hemlock brew as "very different from that of which our common beverage is made, called by us spruce beer; the leaves of it are exceedingly small, dark coloured, and crisp to the touch, not much unlike the juniper tree… I tasted some of the infusion, which had a compound flavour (I could not tell what to compare it to) and was very strong bitter; it is esteemed one of the greatest purifiers of the blood, and I am much prepossessed in favour of it for gouty constitutions."
During the siege, French Commander Chevalier de Lévis conveyed under a flag of truce "some branches of the spruce-tree into town, to make beverage for the Governor’s table; application was made for this favour before, and it was positively refused, from a notion that it was wanted for the use of the garrison; as the spruce was accompanied with many polite compliments, his Excellency sent a [wheel of] Cheshire cheese in return." Whether Lévis was mocking Murray with the delivery of spruce boughs is uncertain. However, Lévis returned Murray’s generosity in kind with a basket of partridges.
The wartime experiences with spruce beer cemented the beverage’s popularity. Both the British Army and Royal Navy continued to benefit from its use. Famous Captain James Cook, who was at the siege of Quebec in 1759, carried this knowledge with him on his adventures in the Pacific Ocean and attributed the good health of his crew partly to spruce beer. When revolution erupted in the American Colonies, spruce beer was "drafted" into the war effort on both sides. By the late 18th century, spruce was distilled down to its "essence" and exported for use elsewhere in the world.
For French Canadians, spruce beer never left their culture. Bière d'épinette or la sapinette continued to be homebrewed into the 20th century, bottled and placed on the roof to ferment in the sun. Once the spruce beer’s bottle top popped off from the pressure of the fermentation, a 300-year-old tradition was ready to be enjoyed.
A French Canadian Habitant drinking. c.1853 by Cornelius Krieghoff
(Library and Archives Canada)
Lettres du Chevalier de Levis concernant la guerre du Canada (1756-1760) Montreal, 1889.
The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle. Vol. XXVI London, 1756.
Pehr Kalm, Memoirs of the Royal Academy of Sciences. Stockholm, 1751.
Pehr Kalm, Travels into North America. London, 1771.
Captain John Knox, An Historical Journal of the Campaigns in North America for the Years 1757, 1758, 1759 and 1760. London, 1769.
General James Murray, Journal of the Siege of Quebec, 1760. Quebec, 1871.
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