What I learned about brewing with spruce

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Shawn Hargreaves

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Inspired by the Alaskan Winter Seasonal, I wanted to try brewing a spruce flavored beer. After much online research, I discovered a surprising lack of good information about this. Much of what info does exist is contradictory, hearsay from people who never actually tried it, or reports of failed attempts.

After several experiments and one successful brew, I decided to write up everything I have learned. Think of this as the post I would have loved to find three months ago :)

First, some things I read about but did not try:

There are various recipes for a "founding fathers" beer, made with whole spruce branches, molasses, and sugar. By all accounts (including a friend of mine who tried this once) the result is foul, of interest only as a historical curiosity.

There are also bottles of spruce extract available in homebrew stores, but I could not find anyone who liked the beer they produce. "overwhelming" and "creosote" are common descriptions!

So here's what I did try: find a spruce tree and taste all possible parts of it. Bark, woody twigs, older needles, and sap are all surprisingly similar in flavor, and extremely nasty. Creosote it is, a taste that, once on your tongue, is virtually impossible to get rid of and not remotely pleasant.

The only nice tasting part of the tree is the new growth tips, which appear on the end of branches in the spring (June and July on the llower slopes of the Cascades in Western Washington). These are the soft, pale green needles (easily distinguished from the dark green older growth), up to where the soft new twig turns to older woody growth. The tips are delicious: powerful citrus, undertones of bitter tannins, and a complex herbal aftertaste almost reminiscent of root beer. They are great just to munch on while hiking, and can be surprisingly different in flavor even between adjacent trees of the same species. I tasted many trees, and harvested only from the best tasting.

Online opinions differ radically as to how to proceed from this point. I found advice everywhere between "dangerously intense flavor, as little as 1 oz can be overpowering" to "chuck in a pound or more", with people recommending boil times from an hour to just a few minutes. So I did some tests:

Making a tea by steeping spruce tips in boiling water produces, well, water. No flavor at all, and minimal aroma. So late addition is a waste of time.

Boiling for 5 minutes produces a mild spruce flavor, again with minimal aroma.

Boiling for 30 minutes produces a stronger but otherwise identical spruce flavor. When suitably diluted, this version tasted exactly like the 5 minute boil. I concluded that spruce flavor does not boil off easily, and takes time to extract, so a long boil is a good idea.

Estimating based on the intensity of my 30 minute boil test, I decided to go with 5 oz tips for a full 60 minute boil.

The citrus and complex herbal flavors came across quite strongly in my boil test, with only a low amount of bitterness, so I decided not to significantly alter my normal hop bittering. I chose a malt based recipe with no late hopping, to leave plenty of room for this flavor to come through.

One thing I did not try is soaking spruce tips in alcohol, so I have no data as to whether dry-sprucing might be a useful technique.

My partial mash recipe started with an ESB I have brewed several times before, but I changed the yeast and hopping to Americanize it:

OG: 1.058
FG: 1.014
Alcohol: 5.78%
IBU: 33.1

2.5 lb Maris Otter
0.75 lb Biscuit Malt
0.5 lb Crystal 20
0.5 lb Crystal 60
0.5 oz Molasses
1 oz Cascade Hops [8.9%] (First Wort)
5 oz Spruce Tips (Boil 60.0 min)
4 lb Light Dry Extract (late addition)
Wyeast Labs #1056 (American Ale)

I opened the first bottle this weekend. It's pretty cloudy, although I think that's more due to my poor sparging than spruce related. Nice head on first pour, but poor retention. Aroma is primarily malt, initial flavor a complex sweetness with surprisingly solid and complex tannic bitterness. The spruce and hops melded really well in this regard, so it's hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins (my wife said it tasted like a nice hoppy beer, just not like any kind of hop she had tasted before). The spruce flavor comes through most strongly in the aftertaste, but even there is not overpowering. Enough to be interesting, but not so much that a casual drinker would necessarily even notice the unusual ingredient.

Overall I'm very happy with this brew, and it is definitely something I will be repeating. Combining spruce with citrusy hops worked really well, so I'm curious to try this in something more aggressive like a west cost IPA.
 

GodsStepBrother

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Very good info thanks, I brewed a spruce tip porter that I have not tried as of yet. But I boiled spruce through out the brew, one shot at 60 minute, one at 10 and then I dry hopped with some as well. Still have not tried but thanks again.
 

14thstreet

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Shawn, thanks for the feedback, great experimental write-up.

I've made a rye spruce ale and still have 8oz of tips I collected 2 springs ago. One problem I had with that beer (recipe here) was that I really couldn't pick out the spruce (4oz at 60min 4 oz at 20 min). The kitchen sink ingredients and the use of Centennial hops may have covered it up, so I'm looking to go simpler next time. It's quite possible that the "red" in the beer just didn't meld well with the other ingredients, so I'll cut out the color specialty malts.

In the end though, my experiences are in line with yours...you have to boil it for a long time. Thanks again!
 

alexdagrate

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I make a spruce pale ale. I chuck in a pound of spruce tips into the boil for 20 minutes.

I use a very, very basic pale ale recipe (and I'm an extract brewer, so basically just light liquid extract and some crystal 40 for steeping) and I used simcoe, chinook, and columbus hops.

Damn good.

This year I experimented with a batch using noble hops. Hallertauer, tettnang, saaz. Not bad, but since I'm a hophead, I probably lack the "subtlety" required to use nobility well.

But basically, what I'm trying to say is that you don't "need" to use molasses or otherwise make a darker, wintery beer like Alaskan's (which is an excellent beer). One of these days, I need to experiment with something like a spruce cascadian dark ale... maybe next spring.
 

Tsarkon

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Hi Shawn!

Do you think breaking or scoring the needles would help the oils emerge from the spruce tips? I'm hoping to make an ale for the colder weather and I want a pretty strong spruce or pine presence in the flavor. And you mentioned you didn't try soaking the tips in alcohol. Are you referring to trying to make an extract of sorts?
 

Homercidal

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I wonder what would happen if you were to run your tips through a processor...

I gathered some tips from a pine I found on Drummond Island. I picked a few needles, crushed them in my fingers, and they smelled awesome! I haven't used them yet. They are in the freezer. I keep meaning to pick some spruce tips, but I keep forgetting until they are all well grown.
 

monkamillion

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I'm a fan of the hard way, process is fun! But an alternative is needed to be said: just use less bottled spruce flavoring. I made an extract batch of blonde ale using 1/4 of the 1 oz bottle in a 4 gal batch at bottling - I only wish I had used more centennial hops for more citrus as described above. Overall, not bad for a session beverage for the Christmas holidays. Cheers!
 

monkamillion

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I'm a fan of the hard way, process is fun! But an alternative is needed to be said: just use less bottled spruce flavoring. I made an extract batch of blonde ale using 1/4 of the 1 oz bottle in a 4 gal batch at bottling - I only wish I had used more centennial hops for more citrus as described above. Overall, not bad for a session beverage for the Christmas holidays. Cheers!
OK. Self-correction. It is Christmas Eve day, trying this beer for the first time, and must say next time I will use a baby medicine syringe to measure the extract in mLs because even 1/4 oz was too much.
 

northofkings

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Although a few years old, this is easily the clearest description of spruce usage I have seen.

If you're still following this thread, quick question: On your volumes, although I'm happy to try the same experiment. With your 5oz for 60min, what was your starting boil size?

Thanks!
 

Dr_Jeff

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What I learned about drinking beer in Alaska made with spruce tips, is that I do not like them.
I had Sprucesplosion by 49th state brewing.
Although I love most IPAs and IIPAs, even had one in Tracy, California called Menace 2 Sobriety that was supposed to be 340 ibus
 
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