Big Spruce Brewing brews history

Jeremy White and Sarah MacKay of Big Spruce Brewing pose by their Silver Tart Beer.

Jeremy White put a taster glass of The Silver Tart beer in front of me. I found the pink colour curious, but was even more curious about the story because… Jeremy had used “history,” (as if it were an ingredient,) in the making of this beer. 

The Silver Tart – Big Spruce Brewing 

Jeremy began his organic microbrewery in Nyanza, Nova Scotia in 2013. He was working at developing different brews when Lorna MacDonald, a summer theatre director, approached Jeremy about producing a beer to be served in conjunction with an upcoming production. The Belles of Baddeck portrayed some aspects of the life of Alexander Graham Bell (the inventor of the telephone,) and his wife Mabel

Rather than just slapping a unique label on one of his beer bottles, Jeremy decided to base his new brew on some fact of historical significance.

After searching in the museum archives, Jeremy learned that Alexander Graham Bell enjoyed drinking raspberry cordial made from shrub. Making shrub is an old method of preserving overripe fruit. It is used as a base for a refreshing drink. (see recipe at end of article.) Jeremy experimented with different fruits, but he found the best taste to add to his beer was a raspberry flavour.

The Silver Tart is a refreshing raspberry touched beer, inspired by Alexander Graham Bell’s love of Raspberry Codial.

When completed, it was named The Silver Tart, rhyming with the name of Graham Bell’s first plane – The Silver Dart.

Jeremy says, “It has become the summer rage of craft beer.” This beer is produced using the same methods as the others but before completion he adds 120 lbs. of raspberries to each vat for another 10 days of polishing.

As I sipped my sampler on a hot East Coast day, refreshing and tart were the tastes I sensed. I could envision Alexander Graham Bell sipping Raspberry Cordial with his beloved wife on their lawn overlooking the Bras D’Or Lakes.

The Tip of the Spear  

In 2013, the site of Fortress Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, celebrated its 300th anniversary. This fortress (fort and town,) was one of the busiest ports in North America and was originally built by the French in 1713 and taken over by the British for the last time in 1758. During its glory days, the French upper class enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle but the lower class lived with the basic necessities of life. Beer played an important part in their daily diet, and as it was a safer option it was consumed more often than water.

The Mi’kmaq First Nations peoples drank spruce tea and taught early settlers to use spruce to prevent the disease known as scurvy, that had killed so many during the early days of settlement.

The Tip of the Spear is a brew that was created for the 300th anniversary of Fortress Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.

Again, the Big Spruce Brewing company was approached to produce a custom beer to be served for the anniversary. Sold in a unique brown bottle, the story of the original Louisbourg brewery is on the back of the bottle.

Jeremy started to research and found information in old records that supported his plans to base a beer on a fact of history.

The brewery at Fortress Loiusbourg made spruce beer and in the 1750’s records inform us that 4000 barrels were produced for the garrison of 2000 troops. The records that were written by the French were highly detailed and were destroyed by the British when they took over the Fortress, however, fortunately a second set of every record kept was sent to France. Those records paint a vivid picture of life in the Fortress.

Beer was originally made by using black spruce tips, that were collected from mid June to mid July. They were mixed with molasses and fermented in barrels.

Big Spruce was able to recreate a beer reminiscent of the flavours of the brew that soldiers drank in the 1700’s – a valuable contribution to the 300th anniversary.

Recipe for Spruce Beer

Spruce Beer – from the Hannah Jarvis Cookbook, health remedies, c.1811. By Hannah Jarvis.

Boil some spruce boughs whiteout bran till the water tastes sufficiently strong of the spruce. Strain the water and stir in two quarts of molasses to half a barrel. Work it with yeast. When sufficiently worked bung it up or bottle the contents.

Recipe for Fruit Shrub  

Use 5 cups of fruit that is overipe but not mouldy. Add 4 cups of sugar to the mashed fruit and let sit 24 hours. Strain juice from the mashed fruit. Add an equal amount of red wine vinegar and bottle. Store for 4 weeks. This mixture is delicious added to cocktails or soda water and ice.










Highland Village, Cape Breton Island Oatcakes, Tea and Fiddle Music

In the Highland Village, a stone home represents life in the Hebrides Islands in Scotland in the early 1700’s before the migration of settlers to Cape Breton in search of a better life.

We climbed the hill against the strong wind to visit the woman who lived in the stone hut with a grass covered roof. She was showing us what it was like to be living in Barra Lake in the Hebrides Islands, Scotland, in the 1700’s.

It felt like we were deep in the heart of Scotland, but I was visiting the Highland Village in Iona, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. The village is a living museum that portrays the life of the Scottish and follows the immigrants journey across the ocean to Cape Breton Island. As many as 30,000 settlers left Scotland for a better life in the new world in the late 1700 and early 1800’s. The early Scottish settlers struggled to make their way in the new world, but rather than continue their lives as slaves to their landlords in Scotland, they sailed to Cape Breton and were gifted parcels of land. When they first came their lives were very difficult. They lived on fish, ice fishing in the winter. Gathering berries and wild plants helped them to survive until their gardens produced. Eventually, they became established farmers and are now part of the fabric of Cape Breton Island, with their Gaelic traditions still very much a part of the culture.

“What do you eat?” I asked the ancient woman in the stone hut representing life in the Hebrides Islands off the coast of Scotland.

“Potatoes,” she replied, “potatoes and more potatoes.”

She told us that sometimes they also had smoked fish, bannock (bread made of flour and water), oats and any berries they could find.

Nettle roots were mixed with water and eaten. She told us that she couldn’t afford salt to preserve the fish, so the fish was eaten smoked, fresh or not at all.

“Belly’s pretty empty,” she said, “shallow whiskey will make an empty belly feel full.”

She went on to complain about mistreatment from the landlord.

Interpretive staff offers oat cakes and tea while we enjoy music in the kitchen of a Scottish home in Cape Breton Island.

We walked on to visit a frame house, representing the life of Cape Breton Scottish settlers later on in the 1800’s we could see a happier, more prosperous way of life.

The house was simply furnished but with enough rooms for comfort. The farming family had a cozy kitchen with a fireplace. Time slowed as we entered the kitchen for a visit and a feeling of nostalgia took us back to life in the 1800’s.

Tea was poured and we helped ourselves to a plate of oatcakes (see recipe at the end of the article,) and a seat in front of the blazing open hearth fire. Soon we heard a story about a “goings on” in the village. Then a young woman grabbed her fiddle and played a mournful gaelic tune, while we looked out the window to the sun shining on the lake beyond. A bare footed girl stood and began a step dance.

Enjoying a fiddle tune and step dancing in the kitchen of a Scottish home in the Cape Breton Highlands at the Highland Village. IMG_1160.jpg

It was a taste of life in times when there was less noise. I could hear the slow ticking of the clock and the birds singing through the open window. A time when people entertained themselves with a cleilidh (a social visit, often involving music.)

The Scottish spoke Gaelic, a lyrical language that seemed to blend well with the music. It was a language with a long history. At school, the children were taught English and punished for speaking their mother tongue causing the language faded.

Food was simple in the time of the early settlers. Oatmeal had been an important part of their diet in Scotland and they missed oats when they first arrived. They were forced to use rough flours ground with stones. When they began to grow and grind oats they could return to baking their beloved oatcakes. The tradition of cooking White Pudding was continued in Cape Breton. It originally consisted of suet meat and oatmeal cooked in a cow’s stomach.

Other homes in The Highland Village portray a time when life was more prosperous and settled. Hot tea biscuits were on the kitchen table of a home with a wood stove, an invention that made life easier. Spruce buds sat waiting to be turned into a home brew made by boiling the buds with sugar, molasses and raisins. Toasted bread or yeast might be added.

The Highland Village ( )is situated on the hillsides of Cape Breton overlooking the Bra d’or Lakes. Eleven buildings represent different aspects of Scottish life from the 1700 to 1900’s. In each home a costumed character tells us a story as if we had just dropped in for a chat giving us a peek into their lives.

“Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens” is a book written by Marie Nightingale that tells us of the roots of food in this province. She shared history and recipes that were brought with the Scottish.

On page 159, she writes about how the Scottish used “real” oatmeal and no sweetening. This old recipe from Pictou County used oatmeal ground at the Balmoral Grist Mill still grinds oatmeal today.

Pictou County Oatcakes (courtesy of Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens) by Marie Nightingale

  • 2 cups oatmeal          ¾ cup shortening
  • 1 cup flour                   ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 cup brown sugar     ¼ cup boiling water
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Combine dry ingredients and cut in shortening. Dissolve baking soda in the boiling water and add, continuing to mix with a knife. Mold with the hands into a long wedge. Slice off and bake in a 400 degree oven for 10 minutes.



Eskasoni Cultural Journey-Mi’kmaq cookery


Cooking Four Cents Bread over the fire

Over the fire, I held a stick wrapped with bread dough. Not unlike roasting a marshmallow, the bread turns brown and puffs up on the stick.

A Mi’kmaq Interpreter is teaching us to make Four Cents Bread as part of the Eskasoni Cultural Journey on Goat Island, in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.

Four Cents Bread was made traditionally as an inexpensive; take anywhere bread that was made with three simple ingredients.

Four Cents Bread

  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 tbsp. baking powder
  •  Water, as needed to make a dough texture.

This bread could be cooked by forming the dough into a disc shape and cooking over the fire on a metal sheet or by wrapping it around a stick and cooking it directly over the fire. And… it was delicious.

Interpreter at Eskasoni Cultural Journey shows visitors a loaf of Four Cents Bread cooked as a disc over a fire


To learn about the Mi’kmaq ways of the past on an Eskasoni Cultural Journey, we walked on a path with views of the lake through the forest. At different spots along the path, an interpreter in traditional Mi’kmaq attire greeted us. They spent time telling us of their traditional customs and ways. We learned of how they hunted moose and other animals, made and heated their homes through the long winters, made baskets and clothing, sang and danced, played games and lived a self sufficient life. A life that should not be forgotten.

The land provided all the food needed. Flag root was chewed, spruce buds made tea to help fever and sore teeth and many plants, roots and berries were collected for food

The Cape Breton Mi’kmaq fished the waters for the many gifts of the sea. In the Bras D’or Lakes, huge inland salt-water bodies of water there were many fish. Eels were and still are a coveted delicacy. They were fished by using a torch to attract them in the night. Eels were then baked, fried or used in stews soups.

Sugar serves Eel stew to guests at the Eskasoni Cultural Centre

When we returned to the cultural centre, I felt honoured to be served a bowl of eel soup, made by a woman named Sugar that morning. She shared with me her simple recipe of eel, cut in pieces, potatoes, onions and broth from cooking the mixture. Picturing a slimy, black eel cutting through the water did not match the fine taste of the tender, tasty flesh I pulled away from the bone.We ate it with Lu’sknikn bread and fresh strawberries.

After our meal, Sugar showed us a centuries old game, played with sticks, dice and a wooden bowl. It is still popular today. As she showed us, someone pointed out an eagle. Sugar stopped what she was doing, looked up and quietly sang a chant.

“A very good sign,” she told us, “when an eagle flies over.”

The food I tasted that day was made with all the care and using the flavours and methods of the past. It is a Mi’kmaq custom to give thanks daily for what the land has given them. I felt a deep, heartfelt privilege to learn the food customs of our First People.

Recipe for Lu’sknikn Bread – recipe courtesy of the Eskasoni Cultural Journeys

  • 4-6 cups of flour
  • 5 tablespoons of baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon of salt
  • 2 cups of water
  • Vegetable oil
  • Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl
  • Part dry ingredients in the centre and 2 cups of water
  • Mix ingredients together (adding more water if needed)
  • Form dough to fit frying pan
  • Add vegetable oil to frying pan and pre-heat over medium high temperature
  • Place dough in frying pan (adding more oil if needed)
  • Cook until golden brown and then turn over.





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