Spruce it up!
Let us just make one thing clear: we love hops. Love ‘em. Can’t get enough of them. They are our bread and butter. They are the Laverne to our Shirley, the Sonny to our Cher, the Bert to our Ernie. We love brewing with hops, and, even more, we love drinking the results. But, let’s face it: hops don’t thrive in everything. Our Fruited Ales and Ciders, for instance. These rely on ingredients other than hops for depth, complexity, and character. Pondering this long enough may lead to the question: “In a hopless world, what ingredients are ideally suited for enhancing the flavor of beer in lieu of the supreme strobile?” There are, of course, many possible answers to this conundrum. One option, historically speaking, is spruce tips.
Yaaaaar, make sure you get yer vitamin C…
The tender young shoots of the genus Picea have long served as a food source for insect, animal and human alike. The soft-bristled, bright green shoots have a pleasant lemony taste and are a great source of vitamin C. It is recorded that the famed 18th-century explorer Captain James Cook brewed a spruce beer recipe for longer voyages to ward off scurvy. Scurvy is no longer a worry for modern travelers, but the fine points of the Captain’s brew can still be enjoyed today. Let’s delve a bit deeper into the history of brewing with spruce tips and the potential they hold for the modern brewer!
Hops? What are hops? Ways to make beer interesting in a world without hops.
“Before hops became the standard in brewing a century ago, early brewers used all kinds of flora to spice their beer,” notes Cole Hackbarth, Director of Brewery Operations at Rhinegeist. “Spruce boughs and tips were common both in flavoring but also for wort separation.” Imagine that you’re a brewer in the olden days, before hops were a readily available staple. Your day-to-day innovation might have been wandering around, playing a never ending game of “Will it Brew?” with whatever interesting things you stumble upon. The early spring, when the fluffy, bright green tips started to sprout on spruces throughout the forest, was probably a very exciting time.
Pre-hop brewing was often very innovative, resulting in traditional recipes that are still enjoyed today (both with and without spruce). Sahti, a traditional farmhouse ale native to Finland uses juniper twigs and berries for flavor and lautering, and Gruit, a style once common in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Western Germany, often incorporates spruce into an ingredient list that reads like an early twentieth century British cough drop recipe (sweet gale, mugwort, yarrow, ground ivy, horehound, calluna heather, juniper, ginger, caraway, anise, nutmeg and mint just to name a few). We often take the uniformity and availability of modern malts and hops for granted, it seems, but when in Rome! (Or medieval Europe, as it were.) There are still commercial breweries producing these styles today, if you’re interested in, er um, branching out (see what we did there?).
Spruce Tips in modern brewing
Thankfully, brewing with spruce didn’t die out completely in the age of hops. A handful of modern breweries are incorporating spruce tips into their creations with refreshing and interesting results. Ballast Point’s Spruce Tip Sculpin, Grimm Artisan Ale’s Super Spruce and Dogfish Head’s Pennsylvania Tuxedo are a few of the more notable examples. “Spruce tips add a delightful combination of pine, citrus, woodsy, green, and even wine grape or red berry,” notes John Holl in a recent article for Beer and Brewing Magazine. It’s no surprise that especially American breweries, with a much shorter brewing tradition to draw from, are looking for inspiration in old world ingredients that just so happen to be readily available in our back yard, as it were, and often using them in addition to, rather than in place of, hops. Enter the Spruce Goose.
Hang loose, brew spruce.
The Spruce Goose
I said hop in…
“I wanted to do a spruce tip beer because it’s another awesome way to incorporate our natural resources to make an awesome, interesting beer,” notes Dylan Rose, the Lead Brewer behind our recent IPA featuring the eponymous apical buds, the Spruce Goose. “There’s nothing better than getting to harvest fresh ingredients and use them in a beer just a couple hours later.” And, when using spruce tips, quickness is key. Spruce tips start to bud out in May, and they have a pretty narrow harvest window. “Once they start to bush out they really lose most the citrus aromas pretty quickly,” notes Rose. Just like with wet hopping, you really want to harness as much of the bright, juicy qualities of the buds as possible. Luckily, we know a guy.
Matt Mongin owns Spring Valley Tree Farm in Spring Valley, Ohio, about an hour’s drive from the brewery. The day we were scheduled to brew the beer, in mid May, we were able to drive out and harvest the tips and get them back in time to harness their bright, lemony essence in all its spring resplendence. The majority of the tips came from Norwegian and Colorado spruce trees, with some white spruce and concolor fir mixed in for good measure. We added the tips into the whirlpool, toward the end of the brew. “The brew stirred up some nostalgia for the early days in craft, when IPA was new innovation and flavor technology was still just for soft drinks,” reminisces Cole Hackbarth. Everything old is new again, as they say.
Let Them Drink Spruce!
Since we used both hops and spruce tips in the Spruce Goose, you get the best of both worlds. Simcoe, Chinook and Centennial hops share the stage with a variety of fresh spruce tips, and the resulting brew is piney, dank, refreshing, and packed full of citrus character. If you’re under the assumption food and drink flavored with spruce is bound to taste like a cleaning product, give the ol’ Spruce Goose a try and it’s sure to change your mind. Spruce Goose is a limited, draft-only release, so keep an eye out for it on taps around town and at the brewery. Put a little piece of nature, history, and good old-fashioned brewer’s innovation in your glass!