Looking for a different drink to serve this year at your holiday party? Something that says “Christmas in a bottle?” It seems that Canada has a suggestion that brings all the flavors of the season to life, and also has the history of being a life-saving beverage.
BBC says that the Canadians serve biere d’epinette or spruce beer most often in Montreal in a frosted glass and it is refreshing, according to author Quinn Hargitai.
“I raised the bottle and poured its contents into a frosted mug. The clear, effervescent brew had scarcely foamed to the top before it was at my lips. As I eagerly took my first sip, I was immediately hit with the unmistakable, biting taste of conifer – like a liquefied Christmas tree. This was my first bière d’épinette, or spruce beer.”
Despite the name, the spruce beer is more in the category with root beer than alcoholic beer, but less sweet, and a touch closer to ginger beer according to “spruce brewmaster” Dany Roy. Spruce beer is commercially available, but there are plenty of artisans who brew their own, like Roy, in small batches. Roy says to the best of his knowledge, he’s one of the last places you can find the authentic product made for a poutine shop location.
The traditional method of making spruce beer is through fermentation with yeast, and the process is stopped while there is minimal alcohol, which is the way it’s been done for over 100 years. But Roy says the true story of spruce beer and its health properties goes back much further.
“First of all, we all know that the spruce beer was made by the [indigenous peoples]. They used it like a medicine.”
The earliest mention of the beverage in print was in 1536 from the accounts of French navigator Jacques Cartier, who was exploring the St. Lawrence River when a bout of scurvy broke out, caused by a Vitamin C deficiency.
“The sickness broke out among us accompanied by most marvelous and extraordinary symptoms. For some lost all their strength, their legs became swollen and inflamed, while the sinews contracted and turned as black as coal… of the 110 men forming our company, there were not 10 in good health so that no-one could aid the other, which was a grievous sight considering the place where we were.”
But the local Iroquois tribe came to their aid with a drink they made from the boiled bark and evergreen tips from the local pine trees was said to be curative and Cartier raved about the response.
“A whole tree as large and as tall as any I ever saw was used up and produced such a result that had all the doctors of Louvain and Montpellier been there, with all the drugs of Alexandria, they could not have done so much in a year as did this tree in eight days.”
The initial version was not fermented like the modern product, so the vitamins were protected, but Roy says there are still people who swear that spruce beer can chase away a winter cold.
“I wouldn’t say that it can cure people, but sure enough people who come here in the winter swear that they don’t catch a cold, all because they’re drinking the spruce beer.”