A small beer which was no small beer: F.A. Fluet Enregistré of Québec, Québec, and La Canadienne spruce beer
Happy New Year, my reading friend. I must admit that I had some difficulty in choosing the topic for this week. If I may recycle a quote from Princess Irulan, a minor character from Dune, a rather disappointing science fiction film from 1984, a beginning is a very delicate time. So, let us be original – and sober.
Yours truly indeed wishes to start the year 2021 with an article on… spruce beer – a classic in the culinary toolbox of Québec.
Before going any further, let me clarify that this is about the real spruce beer and not the all too often disappointing substitute available in the 21st century. The spruce beer referred to here was an alcoholic beverage for soldiers and / or sailors produced centuries ago using spruce needles and / or buds. Alright, alright, take a deep breath. This article will also discuss the non-alcoholic version of spruce beer.
In Québec, New France, today’s Québec, it was apparently to the first apothecary and European settler of this territory, Louis Hébert, that we owed the first European-made North American version of this drink, brewed in 1617.
The European term is appropriate. Many First Nations indeed produced a non-alcoholic drink made from conifers long before the arrival of the first explorers / invaders from Europe, to protect themselves from scurvy, a terrible affliction caused by a deficiency in dextrogyrous l-ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, during the winter season, when there were obviously not a lot of fruits to pick.
Seeing his men die like flies (25 out of 110 in 2 or 3 months), because of scurvy, during the terrible winter of 1535-36, spent in Québec, Cartier obtained through cunning the recipe for said drink, apparently made from white pine. Initially, it was / is said, only a few volunteers drank it. Their near-miraculous recovery convinced Cartier and the others to gorge themselves with enthusiasm. They too were saved.
Cartier was so grateful (sarcasm) that he forced Donnacona, the chief of the Iroquoian village of Stadacone, and 10 or so other residents, including a few children, boys and girls, to leave for France. Although treated fairly well, Donnacona died far from home, around 1539. His compatriots, including his two sons, also died far from home. With friends like Cartier, and so many others… First Nations lives matter.
By the way, did you know that Scandinavian people living many centuries ago also consumed a (non-alcoholic?) beverage made from conifers? They did this to protect themselves against scurvy, but also to increase their strength and fertility.
There are also reports that sailors plying the Baltic Sea consumed spruce beer no later than the 16th century.
Along with wine and brandy, spruce beer was among the favorite alcoholic beverages of the people of the fortress of Louisbourg, Isle Royale, today’s Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, between the 1710s and 1750s. It was also popular elsewhere in New France. Refreshing and less dangerous than the water available at the time, it was also relatively easy and inexpensive to produce.
Would you believe that the British troops occupying Québec in the winter of 1759-60 were entitled to a daily ration of spruce beer? A recipe was found in the files of Major General Jeffery Amherst, the commander-in-chief of said troops and a character whose genocidal opinions towards First Nations could not be more revolting.
Would you also believe that a well-known word originates from the fact that the authorities of New France, at some time before the conquest, limited the consumption of spruce beer to one container per day? Residents of the colony, very annoyed by this diktat, make their opinion known by shouting, more or less loudly, you guessed it, “can a day, can a day.” At least, that was what the anonymous author of an 1811 note in the Kingston Gazette of Kingston, Upper Canada, today’s Ontario, (seriously?) asserted. This assertion was obviously absurd. Totally absurd. No one in New France spoke English.
By the way, around 1698, the French Récollet Louis Hennepin, born Antoine Hennepin, suggested that the word Canada derived from the Spanish expression “aca nada,” which means “here nothing” – a reference to the disillusioned comments by Spanish-speaking explorers / invaders, or even a well-known Castilian historian and cosmographer from the 16th century, Juan López de Velasco, all of them very annoyed by the absence of treasures in the northern regions of the North American continent, but back to our small beer.
The production of spruce beer took off following the takeover of New France, renamed Québec, by the United Kingdom, in 1763. Indeed, an English surgeon and apothecary, Henry Taylor, discovered the means of producing spruce essence in industrial quantities – a revelation and revolution. The distillery whose construction began in 1773, shortly before his death, and which bore the name of Johnston & Purss (Company?) when completed, held the monopoly of this production until 1788. Said essence was exported to various British colonies, from New York in the West Indies, as well as to England.
The spruce beer produced from this essence could be double or single, for ship crews for example. A 340 millilitres (12 ounces) jar of essence could produce approximately 135 litres (30 Imperial gallons / 36 American gallons) of double spruce beer, and twice as much of single spruce beer.
By the way, Taylor’s widow was the sister of James Johnston, John Purss’ business partner. The 3 of them were all Scots.
The Johnston & Purss distillery remained active until 1795. Family disputes which led to costly legal proceedings led to the sale of the facility in 1798.
After the privileges of Johnston & Purss expired, in 1788 you will recall, several spruce beer breweries appeared, mainly in Québec and Montréal, Québec. One of these still existed as of 2021. The founding of the American multinational Molson Coors Beverage Company dated back to 1786. Molson Brewery (Company?), the name of the Montréal firm at the time, obviously brewed beer beer in addition to producing spruce beer.
Another firm worth mentioning was George Bramley & Company. It had its own spruce essence distillery in William Henry, Québec, today’s Sorel. George Bramley could also count on 5 retail stores along the valley of the St. Lawrence River, including 2 in Québec and Montréal.
Many spruce beer producers appeared and disappeared in Québec throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and… When will I end up circling around the spruce essence pot to introduce F.A. Fluet Enregistré, you ask, my slightly exasperated reading friend? Calm down, say I. We are getting there. Well, almost.
Before I forget, during at least one trip to Aotearoa / New Zealand, probably in the 1770s, the famous British sailor and explorer James Cook told his men to produce an antiscorbutic drink using needles and / or buds from a tree which closely resembled North America’s black spruce.
Would you also believe that the family of a British authoress whose name you may know seemed to produce its own spruce beer, in order to compensate for the poor quality of drinking water available in England at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the early 19th century? Very truly I tell you, Jane Austen mentioned this drink in a chapter of her novel Emma, which appeared in 1816.
Interestingly, at least for yours truly, 2 of Austen’s 6 brothers, Francis William “Frank” Austen and Charles John Austen, served in the Royal Navy, a service which called upon the protective virtues of spruce beer. End of digression.
I presume you know that Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published anonymously in the United Kingdom in January 1818 by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. I wonder… Nah… It has to be a coincidence. Still, “Frank” Austen… And yes both Shelley and Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus were mentioned in a December 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.
In any event, François Alphonse Fluet arrived in this world towards the end of 1855. Tadaa. What did I tell you?
Around September 1891, this man with an Acadian accent was working for a producer of ginger beer and soft drinks in Québec, the city of course. The arrival in the business world of Nérée Yves Montreuil actually dated back to March 1880, when Jean Baptiste Richer founded Richer et Compagnie with him, in order to distribute (among other things?) products from John Labatt’s Brewing (Company? Limited?) of London, Ontario.
And yes, Labatt Brewing Company of Toronto, Ontario, is today, in 2021, a subsidiary of the Belgian multinational giant Anheuser-Busch InBev Société anonyme / Naamloze Vennootschap.
One day, once the offices were closed, Montreuil asked Fluet and a colleague, Wilfrid Paquet, if they would be interested in buying the firm. Although very interested, the duo did not have the financial resources to make such a purchase. Montreuil, Fluet and Paquet came to an agreement during the evening. The latter remitted $ 100 to Montreuil and agreed to pay him the sum of $ 1 700 in deferred payments.
Even before the end of 1894, Fluet and Paquet no longer owed Montreuil a cent and their firm then occupied new premises in Québec. It should be noted that the latter died in 1898, at the age of 42 or 43. Richer, on the other hand, had left this world in 1894, at the age of 43 or 44.
As the weeks, months and years go by, the small firm grew.
Around February 1901, convinced that he would be better off on his own, Fluet offered Paquet to buy his share of the firm. His offer was apparently generous, but he asked his partner to commit to working in a field other than beverage production. Paquet agreed.
This being said (typed?), Paquet moved to Grand-Mère, Québec, on an undetermined date, and founded a small soft drink production company there. Fluet’s reaction to this mean trick was / is not known.
The Ste-Léontine mineral water produced by Paquet’s firm was on the shelves of stores until at least 1971. It was then produced by Lafrance & Fils Limitée de Grand-Mère, then of Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec, but I digress.
With Québec absorbed with the temperance campaigns launched by the Société de tempérance de la Croix noire, spruce beer became the most popular temperance drink at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.
An energetic businessman, Fluet was determined to increase the turnover of his firm. He seemed to publish his first advertisement no later than October 1901, for example – in a major Montréal daily, La Presse. His firm was described therein as a producer of beverages of various types (aerated water, apple nectar, cream soda, ginger ale and ginger beer).
At the start of the 20th century, year after year, during the Exposition du comté de Québec, Fluet went to the site in a horse cart to deliver, day after day, dozens of stoneware jugs of fresh ginger beer to refreshment retailers spread across the site. At the end of the day, he returned to his small factory and spent a good part of the night refilling his jugs.
F.A. Fluet also distributed its products in villages in the Québec region, along the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, from Sainte-Croix-de-Lotbinière to Montmagny, in Québec of course. Said products usually made the trip aboard small sailing (and motor?) ships, known as St. Lawrence schooners – or “voitures d’eau” (water carriages).
The bottles were actually placed in barrels containing a lot of straw, to absorb shocks. As said schooners could rock and roll a wee bit along the way, the caps of some / many bottles gave way under the pressure of the carbon dioxide inside them. During certain deliveries, the contents of whole barrels were thus lost.
Deeply thrifty and, dare we say, a bit devious, Fluet took advantage of the fact that the notary whose office was across from his small factory liked to sit on his veranda after a long day’s work. When he had legal questions on his mid, Fluet left his own office a little later than usual, accidentally of course, and engaged in a conversation which ended up focusing on the issue of the day. It was a safe bet that the notary realised very quickly what was happening. He did not seem to take offense, however. In fact, Fluet might have done this for years, avoiding paying a single cent to a lawyer or notary.
Fluet bequeathed his business, then flourishing, to his son, J. Wilfrid Fluet, in February 1916. The latter changed its constitution in 1924. In 1932, increasingly dissatisfied with what was happening, Fluet junior bought back the shares held by other people. F.A. Fluet Enregistré was born. The firm became F.A. Fluet Incorporée in November 1956.
An esteemed businessman without his homecity, Fluet senior died in May 1933, at the age of 77.
The first advertisement mentioning La Canadienne spruce beer seemingly appeared in a June 1934 issue of a Québec daily, L’Action catholique.
If I may be permitted to digress, the term Canadienne or Canadien described in this instance a product of French Canadian or, to use the term used in 2020, sorry, 2021, Québec origin – and not a Canadian Canadian product. Many francophones in Québec, or even the (great?) majority, described themselves as Canadiennes / Canadiens, their anglophone neighbours being the Anglaises / Anglais, or English.
Around 1938, it seemed, the son of Fluet junior, Émilien Fluet, seemed to give up his studies, it seemed, at the École d’agriculture of the Collège de Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière, in Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière, Québec, for reasons beyond its control. He then became his father’s right hand person.
It was this son of the son who proposed to move the family business to more a suitable and larger premise. A golden opportunity presented itself in September 1939. An Anglican church, St. Peter’s Anglican Church, built in 1842 and deconsecrated in 1924, had been put up for sale. It was soon bought. Although F.A. Fluet wanted to renovate the building, restrictions linked to the Second World War meant that the work was not completed until after the death of J. Wilfrid Fluet, in April 1946. He was then almost 67 years old. Émilien Fluet then took control of F.A. Fluet.
A brief digression if I may. Around April 1941, F.A. Fluet became the producer (and bottler?) of the soft drink Orange Crush, a product of the American firm Orange Crush Company, in translation, “the ONLY carbonated beverage recommended by Sports College.”
Sports College of the Air, if you must know, was a program broadcasted by an affiliate station of the Canadian state radiobroadcaster Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) between 1941 and 1944. Aired by CBC between 1944 and the mid-1960s, Sports College, a name adopted at some indefinite point, was the work of an out of the common figure: Lloyd Percival.
As you probably know, this somewhat controversial author / trainer / promoter of physical health published, in 1951, a work which is now almost legendary. Ignored, even decried by the National Hockey League (NHL) when it was released, The Hockey Handbook quickly became the breviary of the coaches of the major hockey teams of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), including the great among the greats, the father of Soviet hockey, Anatoly Vladimirovich Tarasov.
Would you believe that the Soviet team competing in the VII Olympic Winter Games held in January and February 1956, a first for the USSR, had the luxury of winning the gold medal? In fact, the Soviet team won 7 of the 9 gold medals awarded between 1956 and 1988, as well as 1 silver and 1 bronze. The American team won the other 2 gold medals, as well as 2 silver. By way of comparison, the Canadian team had to settle for… 2 bronze medals and 1 silver.
I think I remember listening on the radio, in class (!), to part of the end of the oh, so famous 8th and last game of the 1972 Super Series, won by the Canadian team but by the skin of the teeth (4 against 3, with a tie). A victory which turned out to be, dare I say (type?) it, a nasty pantsing for the NHL and its all-star players, convinced as they were that they would crush the Soviet team without even getting tired, but I digress. Sorry.
By the way, F.A. Fluet became the producer and bottler for the Québec region of a very popular soft drink in Québec before and after the Second World War, Kik Cola, the product of the Montréal firm Kik Company. The firm also distributed the Dry Ginger Ale from another Montréal firm, also well-known at the time, Charles Gurd & Company.
A rather sober advertisement for F.A. Fluet Incorporée’s La Canadienne spruce beer. Anon., “Advertisement – F.A. Fluet Incorporée.” L’Action catholique, 23 March 1961, 21.
F.A. Fluet continued on its way but the fact was that, over the years, small Québec producers and / or bottlers of soft drinks had more and more difficulty in standing up to their ginormous American rivals.
The firm also had microscopic rivals. Both before and after the Second World War, many Québec families produced their own spruce beer during the summer. Some of them used the family bathtub for this, after washing and polishing it thoroughly of course. Bottles filled in this way were sometimes placed in the sun to activate fermentation. They were stored for later consumption when the first cap popped.
The letters patent of FA Fluet may, I repeat may, have been canceled in the spring of 1978. This being said (typed?), a request for the dissolution of the firm was submitted in October 1980. The name of F.A. Fluet was officially canceled in 1985.
Émilien Fluet, on the other hand, left this world in June 1988.
A little anecdote. In August 1992, during a routine inspection, Québec’s Ministère de l’Agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l’Alimentation realised that Marco spruce beer, produced by a small firm in Sainte-Rose-de-Laval, Québec, known in the 1960s and / or 1970s as Bière d’épinette Marco (Canada) Incorporée, could ferment in bottles and reach an alcohol level approaching 3 %. Seized of the file, the Régie des permis d’alcool confirmed these results. Parents who heard about this matter were outraged.
Any drink with an alcohol content of more than 1 % being considered an alcoholic beverage, the sale of Marco spruce beer was prohibited, and this as long as its producer could not guarantee its stability. All the crates in stores were seized by police forces – possibly to the chagrin of tweens who appreciated the effect produced by said product. For one reason or other, the small producer seemed to shut down on an undetermined date.
And yes, you are quite right. A few breweries active in 2021 have used / are using conifers to flavour some of their products. Just think of Canadian beers such as
- the Spruce Moose spruce beer from Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company of Vankleek Hill, Ontario,
- the Tip Hop white spruce IPA from Dead Frog Brewery Company of Langley, British Columbia,
- the Spruce Beer strong flavoured beer from Garrison Brewing Company of Halifax, Nova Scotia,
- the Sprut spruce tip brut IPA from Mount Arrowsmith Brewing Company of Parksville, British Columbia, and
- the Spruce Tip pale ale with spruce tips from Winterlong Brewing Company of Whitehorse, Yukon.
And that’s it for today. Take good care of yourself, my reading friend.
This writer wishes to thank all the people who provided information. Any mistake contained in this article is my fault, not theirs.