A beverage I didn’t mention in my discussion of poutine yesterday, which is a fine accompaniment to french fries and that genre, is zesty Quebec spruce beer – la bière d’épinette.
This is an old Quebec drink which can come in soda form (no alcohol) or with alcohol. Maclean’s magazine recently surveyed the drink and some classic Montreal forms of it, here.
It seems clear that early colons from France and possibly indigenous populations were making a drink flavoured with a spruce extract or essence. Maclean’s describes well the taste, sweet soda-and-Christmas tree – thus, lots of fresh pine and resin. This 1880’s entry on spruce beer in an English dictionary has the advantage of explaining what spruce essence is – an extract of the shoots of the black fir tree. It clearly shows too that drinks and beers with this flavour, or one derived from other types of fir, were known across Europe, from England to the Baltic at least.
In the early 1970s when searching out steamed hot dogs on the “Main” in Montreal – boul. St-Laurent – I noticed spruce beer offered and one place, the Montreal Pool Room (MPR), offered a home-made version. The MPR still exists, further up the street from the original location, but I’m not sure if the spruce beer is still sold. To my best recollection, the piney stuff came from a pot-stopper bottle, was usually cloudy, and had a strong, natural taste – the perfect complement to a rich dish of chips and “all-dressed” hot dogs (tout garnis mais voyons donc).
In Lorraine Boisvenue’s 1979 book on Quebec cuisine I mentioned yesterday, she gives a recipe for a home-made bière d’épinette which involves molasses, yeast and ginger. This would seem an alcoholic version although probably some were quite weak in the ethanol, as for a Russian kvass.
There were commercial versions too, from soft-drink companies. Maclean’s mentions a version from Crush, better known for its orange soda – or orange ginger ale as we called it in Montreal. (All pop was “ginger ale” in Montreal then whether ginger appeared in the recipe or not). If I am not mistaken, the Hire’s company, famous for root beer, made a spruce beer too for the Quebec market.
I’ve tasted the artisan-style spruce beer shown in Maclean’s piece, at a restaurant similar to the one shown. It was very good although sweeter than I remember the MPR’s version back in the 70’s.
Some of the craft brewers are using spruce in beer, entirely logical given that the sticky substance gave its name to a beer proper centuries ago. If you can’t find any but can find, or make, the soft drink version, pour a few ounces into a good pale ale or IPA. You will get something quite akin to one of the old spruce beers.