From St Michel, General Amherst’s Spruce Beer

St Michel. Blue Line. Opened 1986.

When an unknown farmer in the 1760s named the road from the centre of the island to Récollets land on the rapids in the rivière de Prairies the montée St Michel, the patron saint of warriors and suffering, he made an apt choice; between the fall of Acadie to the British in 1755 and the American Revolution of 1776, Canada saw more than its share of both. Battles were fought between Britain and France at Oswego, Fort William Henry, and Carillon, all in New York, Louisbourg, Fort Duquesne (later Fort Pitt, later still Pittsburgh), and Fort Frontenac (later Kingston, Ontario). In 1759, Wolfe and Montcalm battled for Quebec, settling the matter in half an hour at the cost of 48 wounded and 55 lives, including their own.

We speak of Britain and France, but in truth, there was scarcely a united front among them. New France was suspicious of Old France, the British army of the British navy. Scots fought on both British and French sides, a point underlined by the appearance of both Wolfe and Amherst on the field at Culloden. As British troops gained control of Lake Ontario, upstate New York, and the Saint Lawrence Valley, the French lost the support of the Ottawa and other tribes who had served them as guides, rangers, spies and experts in the terrain. The Iroquois may have stayed loyal to the British through the conquest, but Amherst who hated them, hardly repaid the favour.

Amidst the deaths of thousands, the vanity and ambition of kings, governors, and generals, and the politics of revolutionaries and courtiers, Saint Michael had a limited arsenal to defend soldiers from suffering.  Malnourishment and scurvy were inevitable unless an abundant source of fruit and vegetables was found. At sea, it was citrus fruits that made the British sailor a “limey”, but, as Champlain had learned in 1604, life in the frozen forests of the north American winter, not to speak of military campaigns and enemy blockades, made this impossible. Champlain had lost half his settlement looking for a solution that the first inhabitants of America later taught him, was all around him in the spruce trees of the forest. In 1759, it was a necessity to life, and French and British generals alike ordered gallons of spruce beer to preserve both their men and themselves.

On 15th August, as he laid siege to Crown Point on Lake Champlain and waited for word from Wolfe at Quebec, Amherst sent to Ticonderoga for spruce beer. So vital was it that he gave it place in his journal, usually occupied with the traffic of correspondence and military manoeuvres. Made from molasses and the bark of the  spruce tree, it is surprisingly refreshing and still popular in Quebec today.

Take 7 Pounds of good Spruce & boil it well tills the bark peels off, then take the Spruce out & put three Gallons of Molasses to the Liquor & boil it again, scum it well as it boils, then take it out the Kettle & put it into a cooler, boil the remainder of the Water sufficient for a Barrel of thirty Gallons, if the Kettle is not large enough to boil it together, when milkwarm in the Cooler put a Pint of Yest into it and mix well. Then put in the Barrel and let it work for two or three days, keep filling it up as it works out. When done working, bung it up with a Tent Peg in the Barrel to give it vent every now and then. It be used in two or three days after. If wanted to be bottled it should stand a fortnight in the cask. It will keep a great while.

Consulted for this post

Les rues de Montréal : répertoire historique, 1995. []

Joy Carroll. Wolfe and Montcalm: their lives, their times and the fate of a continent (Richmond Hill, Ont: Firefly Books, 2004)

The Journal of Jeffrey Amherst, edited by J. Clarence Webster (Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1931)

This is an update correcting various writing errors on an earlier version which you can see here.

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