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.
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.
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.
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.
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.