Tips for Sprucing Up Beer


We were driving past groves of Sitka spruce, Alaska’s state tree that’s everywhere in SE Alaska. The bus driver/guide made the remark in passing: “A tavern in town serves a local sour beer made with the tips of these trees.” I was immediately intrigued. Spruce buds in the making of beer?

He added that this unusual ingredient is foraged by area locals and sold to nearby Baranof Island Brewing in early spring when the tender, lime green tips are ready to pick. As an historical side note, the guide also said the buds, because they’re high in vitamin C, cured early British and French explorers in North America of scurvy.

Sitka spruce tips (image from medcookingalaska.blogspot.com)

Curious and eager, I found said tavern back in Sitka town where Baranof Island Brewing’s Sitka Spruce Tip beer was on tap. The beer was herbal and citrusy, a profile I’d never tasted before. I was pleasantly surprised. My wife didn’t care for it much, put off by what she said was too strong a piney flavor. It reminded her of retsina.

spruceale

Baranof Island Brewery’s Sitka Spruce Tip Beer

By chance, I stumbled on another spruce beer in Skagway a week later, Skagway Brewing Company’s Spruce Tip Blonde Ale. This was lighter in style with spice notes, creamy with a floral nose. My wife enjoyed this more.

Skagway Brewing Co’s spruce tip blonde ale

After returning home from the cruise, I had to find out more about this beer additive. So, I did some research.

It happens that adding spruce tips is not new. Centuries ago, Scandinavians brewed with Norway spruce tips. When the Vikings got to North America, you can imagine the high-fives after finding spruce trees in abundance. In 1773 Captain James Cook made his first beer in New Zealand using spruce. Even Benjamin Franklin made one that I could easily imagine his quaffing while flying a kite on a stormy night.

Spruce needles’ curative property has been historically recorded. For example, a tea made by the St. Lawrence Iroquois from spruce bark and tips saved the scurvy-afflicted men of Jacques Cartier’s second expedition to Quebec in 1536. For nutritional reasons, the British added spruce tips to beer when exploring the West Coast of North America.

In colonial America, the tips were used in place of hops for flavoring since hops imported from Europe were too expensive. Nowadays, there’s a renaissance of spruce beers, no longer crafted to combat disease but to add any of a host of flavors. The most widely available is probably Alaskan Brewing Company’s seasonal Winter Ale that’s released in the fall. Curiously I detected no hint of spruce; instead it was sweet and had berry flavors. Alaskan’s Spruce IPA follows in January.

Sitka spruce tips (image from nawwal.org)

What started out as an informal statement on tour led to a project of mine to learn more about one of beer’s most interesting ingredients.

Creek Street, a Walk on the Wild Side


Strolling along historic Creek Street is not much different than any modern-day boardwalk of shops and restaurants. It has obvious appeal to tourists who pour through here in the summer, the cruise hordes numbering nearly a million this year alone. It’s conveniently located only a few blocks from the cruise terminal.

Creek Street

You would never know that it used to be a bunch of buildings erected along Ketchikan Creek to appeal to a different clientele, a red light district in the first half of the twentieth century.

At one end of Creek Street are a fish ladder and rapids that salmon need to get past in order to spawn upstream, the inspiration for the humorous aside on Dolly’s House.

Salmon negotiate the rapids along Ketchikan Creek to spawn

Spawning salmon in Ketchikan Creek below Park Ave

I find it amusing that many preserved buildings were once brothels and that tourists titter at the innuendos. Creek Street is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Hubbard Glacier is Defying Global Warming Trends


The first I saw Hubbard Glacier was from the upper deck of the cruise ship. The captain announced its approach over the PA system. Passengers positioned themselves wherever they could get a good look. I estimated that the vessel got no closer than a few miles because the glacier, the largest in North America at 6 miles wide at the terminus and 400 feet above sea level, seemed far off. (The images on this page were taken with a moderate telephoto lens.) Even with binoculars, I couldn’t see any activity. Still, even from a distance, Hubbard was impressive, living up to its reputation as one of the most spectacular attractions in Alaska. The cruise company didn’t offer a small boat excursion to get closer. I would love to have seen the calving of icebergs as they groan, crackle and thunderously collapse into Disenchantment Bay.

Hubbard Glacier is an astonishing 76 miles long, the upper part in the Yukon Territory of Canada. Unlike most glaciers, it is still advancing, contrary to worldwide melting of icefields because of global warming. The ship stayed in the bay the entire morning, doing two 360s so all passengers could see Hubbard from anywhere onboard. 

Hubbard Glacier is 6 miles wide at sea level

Shakes Glacier Is Receding at a Fast Clip


At the end of a jet boat ride on the Stikine River is Shakes Glacier. It has the unfortunate reputation for being one of the fastest receding glaciers in Alaska, at a current rate of 350ft/yr, according to the Shakes Glacier Survey Team. Because of this, icebergs regularly calve from the terminus, some of which I got to see.

Iceberg in Shakes Lake

Eagle Eyes


There are terms we use about which we don’t give much thought. On the face of it, their origin seems obvious enough, it’s just that we have no personal experience to give the expressions much tangible significance; they’re part of the common vernacular.

‘Eagle eyes’ is one of them. I was on a boat tour in George Inlet near Ketchikan. To demonstrate the power of bald eagle vision, the guide tossed a herring into the water. We were surrounded by nothing but trees onshore, part of the massive Tongass National Forest that covers most of southeast Alaska (Panhandle, as it’s commonly called). We waited. And waited. The guide thought it might be hunting elsewhere. Then, out of the forest it came, an eagle from easily a mile away. It circled for a bit, then came swooping down and plucked the fish out of the water. It was an incredible demonstration. Now I’ve seen eagle eyes with my own.

Departure Delay in Alaska


It seems the common murre, also known as a guillemot, needs a good head start to fly. With a relatively hefty body compared to its wings, departure takes a bit of effort and once aloft, it can’t maneuver very well. If you were to suddenly stand up in its flight path, there’s a good chance you and the bird will get knocked unconscious (well, you get my point). But in the water, the murre is in its element and can dive very deep. I captured these images at Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska. The murre is a very common seabird in the Northern Hemisphere.

Twisted Fir


The Cascade Lake Loop on Orcas Island in Washington is a pleasant way to explore part of Moran State Park. Its most interesting feature is a twisted Douglas fir that seems out of place. The other evergreens all around it are straight and tall, making you wonder what traumas it withstood during its lifetime. Its shape mimics old junipers I saw in the Southwest.

Golden Deli Holds Court in San Gabriel Valley


Jonathan Gold knows a thing or two about Southern California food. (He no longer is with us, though his legacy and influence remain.) The Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer once named Golden Deli one of L.A. area’s 99 essential restaurants. 

Located in a strip mall in the food mecca of San Gabriel Valley (SGV), doing business since 1981, it routinely draws legions of ardent customers who are willing to wait for a half hour or more to get seated. I’ve eaten here several times when visiting relatives nearby. 

Though the menu is substantial (intimidating actually), Golden Deli is popular for its pho. The broth is well-balanced and soup noodly, by which I mean that Golden Deli is very generous with the rice noodles. If the soup isn’t eaten fast enough, the pasta will soften and swell to fill up the bowl. A solid pho. 

On warmer days especially, bun calls out to me, a salad of cold rice noodles, plenty of lettuce and bean sprouts, herbs, nuoc cham dressing and choice of topping. GD makes one of the better bun thit nuong (charbroiled pork). Instead of more common do chua, pickled scallions provide the familiar vinegary-sweet accent. And praise to the kitchen for scattering fried shallots on top. I can’t have enough of the stuff. 

Bo kho (beef stew) is another Vietnamese specialty, similar to French pot au feu but with Vietnamese flavors, served with either banh mi bread on the side or ladled on rice noodles, take your pick. Five-spice, tomatoes, curry powder and lemongrass are the usual broth ingredients. The broth made at Golden Deli is intensely reddish-orange in color, likely from annatto, and thinner than some but complex and delicious. The beef is meltingly tender, accompanied on a recent visit by a single carrot. More would’ve been nice. 

Customers sing praises of their cha gio, otherwise simply referred to as egg rolls. It’s a superlative version, savory and bigger than most versions, an umami bomb of ground pork and woodear mushrooms. These are not delicate, bite-sized pieces either, but bigger than cigars. Oily on the surface, their fried rice paper skins are shatteringly crispy if not aesthetically pleasing. Fresh lettuce and herbs come on the side: mint, cilantro, perilla leaves, bean sprouts, sliced cucumbers. Eaten by itself or wrapped in lettuce with herbs and dipped in nuoc cham, Golden Deli’s cha gio is impressive. 

Cha gio (image on Yelp by Jeff T.)

The general consensus is that Banh Mi My Tho rules in the 626 area code for their namesake sandwiches. Lost in its encyclopedic menu is Golden Deli’s own that if for no other reason than its perfect bread surely should be regarded as royalty in this highly competitive market. It’s the kind of bread that’s supple on the inside and so crackly on the outside that shards rain down on the table and clothes with every bite.

Pork banh mi

While one can argue that this place or that in SGV serves a better such-and-such, for sheer variety and quality, Golden Deli continues to hold court.

Golden Deli
815 W Las Tunas Dr
San Gabriel, CA 91776
626.308.0803

Shanghai Cafe Continues to Surprise—Beef with Black Bean Sauce


Shanghai Cafe remains my go-to Chinese restaurant even as new ones open in the Seattle area. My wife and I tend to order the same things every time, menu items that have stood the test of time over the 20 years we’ve been customers. (You can read about our favorites here.) Years ago, one of the long-time waitresses kidded us on our (almost) unwavering selections. 

Last night for dinner, as the year’s first snow started to fall, we decided to give a new dish a go. 

I want to enthuse about their Beef with Black Bean Sauce. After the first bite, it was obvious that this would join our other favorites, a dish so savory and funky from fermented black bean sauce that all my wife and I could say was ‘Mmm.’ Many Chinese restaurants seem stingy with this condiment as if to insinuate its flavor. Douchi should be the star, not a shrinking violet. Dishes using it should be emphatic like chicken with black bean sauce at Yea’s Wok, refinement be damned. For the same reason, I downgrade restaurants that use pesto to color its pasta green rather than generously sauce to highlight basil’s herbal and pungent qualities. There were enough mushrooms to compete with beef slices in volume, maybe a cost-cutting measure. Yet they were perfectly cooked without being spongy while adding their own earthy flavor. Basil leaves lent nice anise notes and color. Despite the sauce verging on being too salty, tempered when spooned on steamed white rice, I’ve found another gem at Shanghai. 

I’ve said before that Shanghai Cafe is unsung and under-appreciated. For good reason, it’s lasted decades at the same location in the Factoria commercial area of Bellevue. For sure my wife and I try new Chinese restaurants but seem always to return here because it’s comfort food. Likewise to my daughter and her husband who crave Shanghai’s vegetarian options whenever they’re in town. 

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Parting Shots at Portland’s Japanese Garden


My wife and I have never driven I-5 through the Northwest in October. This year we did, en route to Southern California. The autumn leaves were gorgeous all along the interstate, mostly yellow with occasional spots of orange and red. They helped break up the monotony of having gone this route many times before.

Randolph E. Collier rest area (California), Interstate 5, just south of the Oregon state line

When I was in Southern California it dawned on me that we’d be passing through Portland later in the month on the way home. I tried to keep a close tab on the fall colors as they were developing in the Japanese Garden.

Trying to find out the current status of the maples wasn’t easy. The website japanesegarden.org didn’t do frequent enough updates to be helpful. So fortune would have to shine on us and it wouldn’t be too late by the time we got to Rose City. As it turned out this year, for best color, the third week was probably best. Yet when we arrived the following week, fortunately there was plenty to admire, in particular the stunning lace leaf maple whose glory I was able to capture on camera. Here is a view from a slightly different angle.

Portland’s Japanese garden is recognized as being the finest outside Japan. I’ve seen it grow and mature over the years, infrequent though my visits have been, and become the breathtaking ambassador it is today. My last time here was in early October 2013, a bit early for best fall color. So it was with great anticipation and fingers crossed that my wife and I arrived on Sunday (October 28). Because it was two hours before closing, we had to keep up a faster pace than we wanted, but we were still rewarded with splendor. The forecasts for thundershowers didn’t materialize; there was only an occasional sprinkle.

After leaving, we headed straight to Ataula, one of our favorite restaurants in Portland. Not wishing to get stuck in Portland’s awful rush hour traffic on Monday morning, we got a room for the night in Vancouver, Washington, just across the Columbia River.