Brewing with Spruce Tips: Tips from Pros

Spruce tips were common in Nordic and Scandinavian beers, and were used by colonists when hops could not be sourced (they also helped prevent scurvy). Over the past decade, Craft Brewers have brought back the use of spruce as an ingredient in many styles of beer.

Brewer: Tim Roberts, Yards Brewing Company, in Philadelphia, PA

Our Tavern Spruce Ale is a historical recipe that utilizes spruce tips essentially as a substitute for hops. We use 30 lbs. of spruce tips in a 50-barrel batch (~1.5 oz. per 5-gallon/19-L), which are meant to add a certain spiciness to the beer. We don’t want that flavor to be over the top and dominate the beer. Rather, we look at it as one component in a fairly complex beer, along with the malt character and molasses. I really think this style of beer needs a firm malt backbone to balance that pine/almost menthol character. In Tavern Spruce, we use a decent amount of crystal malt and roasted barley to back up those flavors.

We use blue spruce clippings from the nearby Indian Orchard Farm, which grows them organically. Yards has partnered with them from the beginning, and as far as I know we have always used blue spruce. They are always added within 24 hours of being clipped, and our brewers pull off the tips from the woodier branches. Then we simply bag them in nylon bags so the needles don’t foul any of the equipment.

We add the spruce tips in the kettle during the last 20 minutes of the boil. We used to add them in the last 5 minutes of the boil, then transfer them to the whirlpool, but we feel like the current process gives us a more consistent/predictable result.

My advice for homebrewers is to use the real thing! In my opinion, the extracts make the beer taste like toothpaste. I’d also recommend starting with less than you might think is appropriate. When it comes to additives, I’ve always believed that less is more. Lastly, as I said earlier, I really do think you want some maltiness in a spruce beer. Even a porter or a stout would work well with it, I think.

Brewer: Rob Day, Alaskan Brewing Co. in Juneau, AK

Our Winter Ale is an English old ale with roughly 100 pounds of spruce tips added into a 300-barrel batch for us. We want it to be fairly pronounced in the nose and throughout the flavor profile. Those are obviously bigger numbers than your average homebrew, but somewhere in that 1⁄2- to1-pound for a barrel (~1.3- to 2.6 oz. per 5-gallon/19-L) would be about right I think. We have also used spruce tips in a tart wheat ale and in the collaboration beer we did with Brew Dogs, which was our Survival Beer based on a Kvass. Basically beers without a high hop or bitter profile have worked best for us.

We add them about 15 minutes before the end of the boil. If you were to add them earlier it would cause a breakdown of the compounds that impart that spruce taste and bring out too much of the sap and piney flavors. Added late, spruce tips add a sweetness — I always think of it as a bubblegum type of flavor and aroma.

We use Sitka spruce tips picked exclusively in Gustavus, Alaska by the whole community there. It be-comes a big project for about a week there — with everyone pitching in to pick the tips at their peak. Then they are cold-water rinsed and immediately vacuum-packed and frozen in Gus-tavus. They look beautiful and fresh when we use them because they haven’t been exposed to air since they were gathered.

One of our secrets is that we age some of our spruce tips and then we mix them in with the new ones. We find that if we age them for a year they get a little sweeter and a little less piney, and mixed with the new buds it makes for the best flavor. We use big mesh baskets to soak them into the boil. Also, pick the buds when they are small — the bigger buds have a higher sap content, which can easily overpower the lemony, bubblegum qualities.

Brewer: Jack Harris, Cornelius Pass Roadhouse in Hillsboro, OR

Our Spruce Budd Ale is made with nothing more than 2-row malt, Sitka spruce tips, yeast and water. The idea is for a nice, light, effervescent ale that features the spruce exclusively. The aroma is piney-perfumey and the flavor has hints of citrus.

I had always practiced subtlety with herbs and spices in beer, but it seems the more spruce you put in the beer the better it is. I can’t overemphasize that point. I have not yet had a batch that I thought could use less spruce. It mostly comes down to how much you can pick and how much beer you are willing to lose to them at the bottom of the kettle. This year we made 30 barrels and used 700 pounds of spruce tips (that is 0.75 lb./gallon or 0.8 kg/L).

I am currently using Wyeast 1968 (London ESB), but any yeast that doesn’t distract from the spruce character will work. We have made a batch with California Common yeast and it was fantastic.
We treat spruce tips pretty much like hops, adding them at the beginning, middle and end of the boil. We save half of the spruce tips for the final addition and divide the rest into the first and second additions. We have tried using a mesh bag to contain them, but have decided that we don’t get nearly the utilization as we do when we just dump them in. We tried dry hopping one year, but this tested even our extreme patience for extra work to make a great beer.

The best spruce tips to pick are off young trees. You can pick off of a 10-15 year old spruce every year. Ideally, you are picking the buds just as the little brown sheath has fallen off of the new growth. The buds will be super soft with a brilliant, almost lime green color compared to the older, darker, stiffer needles. Once picked, the buds can go directly into your beer, or they can be refrigerated and used within a few days or frozen.
Just like the tips themselves, we find the beer is best when drank fresh as the best of the spruce aromatics start to fade 4-6 weeks after the beer is done.

My only suggestion for homebrewers is use real spruce tips and experiment with styles.

Issue: December 2014