Contrary to what its name suggests, spruce beer is a fir-flavoured, non-alcoholic fizzy drink. Native Americans were already brewing a coniferous decoction that they thought had medicinal properties, when Jacques Cartier borrowed the recipe from them in 1536 to treat his sailors who were suffering from a mysterious disease. This was, in all likelihood, scurvy, a disease resulting from a vitamin C deficiency.
The traditional recipe still uses spruce bark, cones or twigs that are actually very rich in vitamin C. These items are mixed with water and sugar and then left to ferment. This drink is called beer because beer wort was originally used for making it. Although yeast is used nowadays, the name beer has remained. The fizziness of the drink is in fact due to the presence of yeast and soda bicarbonate.
These days, spruce beer is made in a semi-artisan way by a handful of small producers in Quebec and Newfoundland. Their products are marketed in some grocery stores, convenience stores and traditional restaurants.
Originally published in the Journal de Montréal on August 20, 2011.