Spruce Fest: A riverside brewing festival

It started three years ago when our small group of friends wanted to level up our camping trip with a unique experience, a primitive riverside brew. My husband, David, and I regularly forage for ingredients for experimental beers in our homebrewery, Mountain Stronghold Homebrew While on a camping trip with our fellow homebrewing friends, James and Ashley, we collected fresh spruce tips for a future brew. But as we sat around our roaring fire next to a rushing river, we realized we had everything we needed to brew right there in the Eastern Cascade mountains of Washington State.

Spruce are a species of evergreen tree that grows abundantly in our mountains. It’s tips are only available for a few short weeks in the spring before the tips mature and become very bitter. Bite into a freshly picked spruce tip and you’ll get a burst of the forest on your tongue. In modern brewing they are used because of the unique resinous and citrusy flavor they add to beer.

Photos by James Thomas

On Spruce Fest’s brew day, we start by splitting into two groups. While some are foraging, others are prepping the primitive riverside brewery. The brewery team hauls our brewing equipment, firewood, and ingredients down to the riverbank and sets up the 5-gallon (19-L) brewing area. A three-sided brick oven is constructed on the river rock and a fire is started so we can begin heating strike water. Buckets are carried out to the center of the river, where the water is fast-moving, and hauled back to shore.

While brewing is normally a precise science, when it comes to Spruce Fest the only rule is: “More Spruce Tips.”

We learned a lot since the first year’s brew and improved our efficiency. This year, we set up much closer to the river and built a better oven swapping out cinder blocks for bricks, helping with temperature control. While brewing is normally a precise science, when it comes to Spruce Fest the only rule is “More Spruce Tips.” Spruce tips are added to every step of the brewing process — they are thrown into the hot liquor tank, mash, and boil, and we filter our wort through spruce tips as we transfer it to the fermenter. People throw spruce tips in by the handful whenever they walk by. We don’t bring a power source down to the river, all liquid is transferred using gravity. Once the boil is complete, the kettle is hauled out to the shallows of the river to cool down, then transferred to a carboy where the yeast is pitched.

We use an all-grain pale ale recipe with a grain bill that includes 2-row, crystal 15L, Munich, Maris Otter, and Carapils®. Saaz and Warrior® hops were chosen because we want to let the spruce tips shine instead of hop bitterness, and they sure do. The finished beer is piney, resinous, and we note a unique candied orange flavor. Beyond the flavors created from the spruce tips, the smokiness from being wood-fired really comes through and lingers in your mouth once the spruce flavor falls off.

We continue to invite more friends each year, and homebrewers and pros in the area now join us to collect spruce tips for their own creations, including a spruce tip cider. Yakima’s Wandering Hop Brewery has joined us the past two years to harvest ingredients for their Spruce Almighty Double IPA, and this year Yakima Valley Hops documented the brew, complete with drone footage. As always, we pack out what we pack in and forage sustainably.

Planning for Spruce Fest 2021 is underway, and this year it will include two riverside brews, one traditional ferment and one spontaneous. Once a small brewing/camping trip for four friends, Spruce Fest has become a tradition where we bridge our passion of brewing with our love of the outdoors, and we’re grateful we live in a place with plenty of nature’s bounty willing to share.

Issue: May-June 2021