Happy holidays! As we move towards the end of the year, there are plenty of aromas that people associate with the most wonderful time of the year. Hot cider, cookies, nutmeg, gingerbread, roasting chestnuts, and a dozen other smells have been written about in carols.
You can keep all that. When I think about the dead of winter, the thing that tickles my olfactory epithelium is spruce. And wouldn’t you know it? Spruce has a long and colorful history in beer, and there’s more than a handful of ways – commercial and otherwise – to get your hands on authentic spruce beers.
First off, what exactly is spruce? Broadly speaking, it’s a type of pine tree. It’s a coniferous evergreen, which means (…middle school science, don’t fail me now…) it has needles instead of large leaves, and it doesn’t shed them in the fall like a deciduous tree. There’s about 35 different varieties of spruce, and they’re spread out all across the northern hemisphere. In terms of smells, spruce smells like, well, spruce. Think pine needles, balsam fir, and hiking through the woods in New England. In a beer, the taste coming from spruce can be as varied as those from hops, ranging from citrus to grass flavors.
If that’s too much science for you, just think of the look and smell of a Christmas tree.
If you search online for information about beers brewed using spruce, you’ll find a lot of articles pointing to spruce beer in early American history. These articles aren’t wrong, as the colonial and revolutionary generations were huge proponents of spruce beer. Spruce beer of the seventeenth and eighteenth century was a molasses-based fermented beverage (not exactly the same as today’s malty spruce brews), and was drank as much as a scurvy-preventing tonic as for refreshment. It was actually rationed to soldiers during the American Revolution! One of today’s popular versions of the beer, Yards Brewing Poor Richard’s Spruce Ale, is based on a recipe from none other than Benjamin Franklin. Between that and Washington’s pumpkin beer recipes, the founders were quite the creative brewers.
Despite all the lip service paid to the founders, the roots of spruce beer are much older. They’re ancient Scandinavia old. According to the The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, Vikings brewed from “shoots of Norway spruce, drinking the beer for strength in battle [and] for fertility.” The Vikings were the ones who introduced the Scots to the beer, who then introduced it to the rest of the British Isles, which explains where the original colonists got the idea to brew beer with spruce.
There’s a couple different ways that spruce can be worked into a beer; spruce tips, spruce extract, or just throwing whole damn branches of the stuff into the brew kettle. Spruce tips – the cute little dealies in the picture at the head of this column – seem to be the most popular ingredient in the spruce beers of today. The tips go into a beer just the same as hops do during the boil, and have similar bittering, flavoring and aroma qualities depending on when they get added. Spruce extract is essentially essence of spruce, as it’s water that’s been boiled with spruce shoots in it, and then reduced down. Like most flavoring extracts, it can go into the beer after the boil, or even at bottling. As for the “whole damn thing” strategies, a lot of old-school recipes call for just tossing spruce boughs in with the boil.
If you’re looking to brew your own beer with spruce, homebrew recipes are plentiful. The most referenced one comes from Charlie Papazian’s Complete Joy of Homebrewing, and makes for a “light-bodied brown ale.” It’s also easy enough to find molasses-heavy recipes that approximate earlier versions of the brews, like this one from Pioneer Thinking. Beyond this, most homebrewing books have at least one recipe for a beer with spruce; looking at my shelf, there are recipes in Homebrew Favorites, The Homebrewer’s Garden, and Wines and Beers of Old New England. If these aren’t enough, plenty more can be found online. If you Google “spruce tips” the first results are, you guessed it, homebrew forums.
For commercially available spruce beers, options abound – though they’re frustratingly hard to find in the Northeast. My favorite beer brewed with the stuff is Alaskan Brewing’s Winter Ale, an English Olde Ale brewed with locally sourced Sitka spruce tips. Alaskan is the first winter brew I ever tasted, and the strong spruce nose is something I’ve been longing for in end-of-the-year seasonals ever since.
Rogue’s Santa’s Private Reserve is another beer with a heady spruce aroma, followed in the flavor by a very piney finish. The brewery is a bit cagey with any mention of spruce, but one suspects the “Rudolph hops” used in the beer are actually spruce tips. There’s no question about the presence of spruce in another of Rogue’s beers; the John John Juniper, a version of their Juniper Pale that’s aged in Spruce Gin barrels.
Colorado’s Steamworks brewery brews Spruce Goose, a dark 8%+ ABV ale inspired by the Scandinavian roots of spruce beers. Wigram Brewing draws inspiration from the traditional English versions of spruce beer with a rimu-, manuka- and molasses-infused beer based on the ale Captain Cook brewed for his journey to the South Pole. In Vermont, Rock Art’s entry into the piney fray is a wild one; the wonderfully insane concoction that is the Pumpkin Imperial Spruce Stout.
Not every spruce beer is a dark amber or winter warmer. Shorts, purveyors of some of my favorite beers, offers up a Spruce Pilsner that’s a crisp, herbaceous treat. I love all the beers on this list, but if you want to try something that really showcases spruce – aroma and flavor – front and center, hunt down the Short’s.
Spruce beer is even available as a non-alcoholic soft drink. Just as you can find “birch beer” (a popular type of soda brewed with birch bark) here in New England, you can find a soda called “spruce beer” in Atlantic Canada and Europe. I haven’t had a chance to try one yet, but there’s also apparently birch beer out there that’s an alcoholic beer brewed with fermented birch sap.
Any great spruce brews I’m missing? Am I alone in my love of the stuff? Let me know in the comments.
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