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Friday, January 17, 2014

Beer, Scurvy and the Mayflower Pilgrims

Beer—Don’t Leave Home Without It
by Lisa Saunders.

If you asked the Pilgrims what they valued most on their Mayflower journey to New England, hands down they’d tell you beer. It was considered part of a healthy diet and a trusted source of water--even the children drank it. Long after they reached the slimy bottoms of their water casks during the 66-day sail across the Atlantic, their beer remained drinkable.

But not all beer is created equal for a long voyage—some styles stay fresher longer, depending on the brewing process. Patrick Bailey, Import Craft Manager, F & F Distributors, said, “There is no definitive answer to what style of beer the pilgrims were drinking.  However, they came over prior to the creation of Porters or IPAs.  They were probably drinking cask ale, which featured an English Bitter in it. This was the most popular beer at the time that could last the journey.”

The Mayflower passengers were desperate to land when their beer supply ran low. Although it is unclear if they put a vitamin C containing plant such as pine needles in their beer, when they began rationing it, they saw the first signs of scurvy -- bleeding gums, loosening teeth and bad breath that, according to Dr. Lee McDowell, author of Vitamin History, the early years, “was an intolerable stench of putrefaction.” A professor and cruise lecturer, McDowell amuses his audience by smelling their breath, checking for signs of scurvy. He warns them they can begin suffering from it in as little as six weeks, “though generally it takes 10-12 weeks for scurvy to develop.” One recommended treatment for scurvy in the early 1500s was to rinse one’s mouth in urine.

According to McDowell, scurvy led to the majority of deaths among the Mayflower passengers their first 1620-1621 winter in New England when half of the 102 died. As scurvy progressed, the settlers become too weak to walk. “With scurvy, there is weakening of collagenous structures in bones, cartilage, teeth and connective tissue; swollen bleeding gums, with loss of teeth; fatigue and lethargy; rheumatic pain in legs; and degeneration of muscles and skin hemorrhaging. Old healed wounds and scars can suddenly break open, and fresh wounds and sores show no tendency to heal.” Some of the Mayflower deaths were a direct result of scurvy, “while other deaths may have resulted from an indirect effect of scurvy, with the lack of vitamin C resulting in a lower resistance and greater susceptibility to disease organisms (e.g. pneumonia).”

Seafarers have suffered from scurvy throughout the ages. McDowell said, “Many more sailors in the world’s navies were lost to scurvy than in battle, and more explorers died of it than from any other cause. From lacking sufficient access to fresh fruits and vegetables, it is estimated that over a million seamen died from scurvy during the 17th and 18th centuries.”  In 1749, an onboard experiment showed that oranges and lemons cured scurvy, but it was not until the late 1700s that the British navy required ships to carry citrus juice.


It was the high death rate of British seaman that led to one of the causes of the War of 1812. Often finding themselves short of able-bodied crew as a result of scurvy, the British would seize Americans off shore to serve in the Royal Navy. One Mystic resident forced to serve as a seaman against his will was Jeremiah Holmes. Escaping after three years, Holmes later joined other local militia volunteers in defeating the British at the Battle of Stonington.


One scurvy prevention drink was thought to be spruce beer, which was made by adding spruce twigs and needles to the brew. Used to keep scurvy away from the time of the Vikings, even George Washington, a brewer himself, ensured the Continental Army drank beer infused with the tips of spruce trees. Dr. McDowell cautions, “There would be some question as to how much vitamin C the drink would contain as fermentation, heating and drying all would result in some destruction of the vitamin.  However, if the twigs and needles were put in the beer, or whatever beverage, after fermentation and/or heating, then the drink would be a good source of vitamin C.”

Spruce beer is still being brewed today for its unique flavor. Beer distributor Patrick Bailey said, “There are some craft brewers experimenting with them. For generations, spruce has been used as a substitute for hops. Spruce gives off a piney resinous flavor, which is a big flavor profile in many Northwest Hops.”

Some home brewers such Alex Buckley, a field service engineer for a medical device company, use blue spruce needles as a bittering agent. “I add the needles to the boil with the hops to bring out a more citrus and pine flavor."

But spruce beer isn’t for everyone. Dr. Bradley Saunders, a physical therapist who has tasted 900 types of beer from all over the world, said, “Apparently, I have allergies to pine—spruce beer caused my face to swell up.”

Learn more about the Mayflower, scurvy and beer and Lisa's travel memoir, Mystic Seafarer's Trail.

First published as an article in: Jan 2014: Beer--Don't Leave Home Without It (pg 30-31)

1 comment:

  1. Lisa! Loved your beer article.
    Writing an essay about Mayflower for CIHA book of essays and Symposium in 2020. Beer forms an integral part of essay. As a Brit following up in UK.
    Have a few q's if ok? Can you reply to michaeljkemp@btinternet.com. cheers! Mike