Spruce beer and spruce trees
Posted: 26 May 2019 12:53 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Spruce beer is made by boiling the leaves and branches of spruce trees – except that etymologically the link is not as simple as it looks. In both cases “spruce” originally meant “from Prussia”, “Spruce” being an early form of the English name of that country (Chaucer called it “Sprewse”). The original spruce beer, mentioned in English first around 1500, in a poem called Colyn Blowbolles Testament(“Spruce beer, and the beer of Hambur [Hamburg]/Whiche makyth oft tymes men to stambur”) was a thick, strong black brew flavoured with an extract from Picea abies, the tree called Fichte in German and gran in Norwegian. It was exported to other countries from Danzig, then the main port of Prussia, and just as it was known in English as “Spruce beer”, the beer was known in Danish as Pryssing, the old Danish/Swedish/Norwegian name for Prussia, which in the modern languages is Preussen, the same as it is in German. This thick black beer became very popular in the North of England, where local entrepreneurs made their own variety, frequently in establishments called the “Dantzic [sic] Brewery”, and the last brand of black beer, Mather’s, made in Leeds, disappeared only six years ago. Meanwhile English did not have its own word for Picea abies, which became known as the Spruce tree, the tree from Prussia, since, again that was where it came from. So originally, spruce beer being made from spruce trees was just a coincidence of names, since both were so called because they came from Prussia …

However, subsequently in North America, European explorers found two relatives of Picea abies, Picea rubens, which the English named the red spruce, and Picea mariana, which they called the black spruce. It was quickly found that beers made with extracts of either of these two trees were extremely good at keeping scurvy away (since they were rich in Vitamin C), and spruce beer was adopted by both the British Army and the Royal Navy: indeed, it has been argued that spruce beer helped the British defeat the French and conquer Canada, by keeping troops healthy who would otherwise have fallen ill with scurvy. By then, of course, the origins of the name “spruce” in a term for something from Prussia had been forgotten, and this beer was called “spruce beer” because it was made from spruce trees … (Jane Austen was a fan of North American-style spruce beer, a taste she probably got from her brothers in the Royal Navy, and the drink receives a couple of mentions in Emma.)

Then there’s “spruce” meaning “neat” or “attractive” … but perhaps another time.

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Posted: 27 May 2019 05:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Fascinating, I had no idea!

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Posted: 27 May 2019 04:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I posted your spruce story at LH, and commenter Trond Engen says: 

From Zythophile: the beer was known in Danish as Pryssing, the old Danish/Swedish/Norwegian name for Prussia, which in the modern languages is Preussen, the same as it is in German.

Almost.. Pryssing must be the old demonym, modern prøyser. Similarly Pryssen vs. modern Prøysen. These forms are not particularly native. I think the change from y to øy (Da. øj, Sw. öj) came with the increasing influence of High German.

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Posted: 28 May 2019 10:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Can one buy it in the United States? Sounds interesting.

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Posted: 29 May 2019 04:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Fascinating, and good to see you posting again, Zythophile. Also nice to see informative and non-combative* pure etymology posts.

*I hope I haven’t spoken too soon.

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Posted: 29 May 2019 03:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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zythophile - 26 May 2019 12:53 PM

“Spruce" being an early form of the English name of that country (Chaucer called it “Sprewse”).

There are two early words for Prussia, Pruce and Spruce. Chaucer used both (or more accurately, the scribes who copied his poems used both). One manuscript of The Book of The Duchess spells it sprewse, so technically this statement is correct, but Middle English spelling is not standardized, and there are all sorts of variant spellings of the word, both in Chaucer manuscripts and in other texts.

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Posted: 29 May 2019 06:48 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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ElizaD - 29 May 2019 04:33 AM

Fascinating, and good to see you posting again, Zythophile. Also nice to see informative and non-combative* pure etymology posts.

I hope I haven’t spoken too soon.

And so good to see you here again, Eliza! Hope all has been well.

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Posted: 17 June 2019 10:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Eyehawk - 28 May 2019 10:30 AM

Can one buy it in the United States? Sounds interesting.

Literally in the past year or two a couple of Polish craft brewers have revived the beer, which is known as Jopelskie in Poland, and I went there last week in part to find some. It’s made today by boiling an imperial stout wort for 24 hours until you end up with something incredibly thick and oily, and then trying to ferment it out as much as possible: it gets up to about 9 percent alcohol before the yeast waves a white flag. It costs 39 złoty for 100ml, almost 50 times as much per millilitre as a standard bottle of Polish lager! Sadly, I’m not aware of it being available outside Poland.

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Posted: 18 June 2019 04:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I’ve come to the same conclusion, zythophile. Thanks for the input.

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