Tips for Sprucing Up Beer


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

Sitka spruce trees (Seward, AK)

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 in town. 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 detected as too strong a piney flavor. It reminded her of retsina.

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 kiting on a stormy night.

That spruce needles had curative properties 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.

Advertisements

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.